The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
Even having done no research on the film beforehand, watching The Witch I could tell that the director had a strong background in design. Indeed, Robert Eggers – whose debut feature this is – has previously directed a few short films, but mainly worked as a Production Designer, Art Director and Costume Designer on the films and theater productions of others. Here, every inch of every frame feels carefully constructed, as does the score and overall sound design. There is not one element on screen that has not emerged from the mind of a man with a plan. All the while scaring the breeches and petticoats off of his 17th-century characters, Eggers fully intends to scare the pants off of us, his 21st-century viewers. That he mostly succeeds is a mark of his genuine artistry. That he ultimately fails is due to his script (which he also wrote), which breaks down in its final climax. The concluding man-behind-the-curtain payoff reveals too much; the eerie, abstract mystery, once concretized in the expected supernatural, feels pedestrian, because expected. Better to have kept us guessing.
According to the press kit (I don’t remember a date listed on screen), we are in 1630, in New England. When the film opens, we find ourselves at some kind of a trial, where patriarch William – a very good Ralph Ineson (The Selfish Giant) – defends himself against charges of heresy. His punishment? Banishment from the colony (which looks very much like Plymouth Plantation). And so he takes his family of six (wife and five children) out to the edge of a dark forest, away from what passes for civilization, to make their own way in the world. They look hardy, but we soon discover that they are but recent arrivals from England, without much in the way of backwoods smarts. As eldest daughter Thomasin – newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, also very good – gazes warily at the dense trees, we hear a rising chorus of women’s voices crescendo on the soundtrack, hinting at the hysteria that awaits.
Which is not long in coming. First one child disappears, then another, and the family members soon turn on one another, blaming each other for bringing the devil. Indeed, from that very first scene in Plymouth, we are plunged into a world of dread and superstition, where the speech of loose tongues can be used as evidence in future accusations. As the situation goes from bad to terrifying, the most suspicions fall on Thomasin, whose desperate attempts to please her increasingly unsettled parents only make her more culpable in their eyes. All the while, Eggers ups the nightmarish ante through sound, color and composition. And goats.
Never have simple farm animals seemed so scary. One, a billy goat whom the children have nicknamed Black Phillip, may or may not be Satan, himself. Or so they think. And that’s where the film is strongest. Eggers weaves so much disquiet and unease into the ordinary that you will never be able to look at a goat (or even a rabbit, as there’s one particularly awful one that appears at frequent intervals) again without fear. Which doesn’t mean that there are not also genuine shocks, as well. After the disappearance of the first child, we encounter an old naked woman – what, in an un-PC world, we would call “a crone” – who is most definitely up to no good. Later, we meet her again. Is she real? Is she actually a witch?
Ah, would that the director had left more unanswered. His film is otherwise a beautifully experimental horror film, where his aesthetic – through an innovative use of lighting and music – keeps us on our toes, both from terror and confusion. But then, at the end, we sadly arrive at an ending that is both conventional in its horror-movie bloodshed and unfortunate in its detailed revelation. Furthermore, it is not clear (to me, anyway), what Eggers is trying to say with that conclusion. In the late 1690s, actual women suffered devastating consequences when their communities accused them of witchcraft. In The Witch, it’s as if Eggers is saying that those overzealous inquisitors might have been on to something. That’s certainly not a cause that I’m willing to sign up for, but I will gladly agree that Eggers has loads of talent and should keep on making movies, even if this one is less than perfect. It’s certainly a worthy first effort.