“We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.”
To watch The Witch is to be perplexed. And frankly, I must admit that I still have not completely put it all together. It’s thought-provoking while diffident. Intense yet languid. The features of the picture clash against each other, cautiously rallying around a distinctly sustained tone but never really adding up to any one thing in particular. All of those pieces are visually beautiful, well shot, discreetly lit. And still, I found it to be all too divisive, lacking the cohesiveness to bring the obvious metaphors together in a way that unites them under one all-important storyworld dignitary. The Witch scares us with obsession rather than execution, and although it’s an impressive directorial debut from Robert Eggers, it leaves the viewer in want.
The film’s poster and opening credits both label the movie as a “New England folktale.” It’s not your standard horror film or terrifying thriller. The approach matches the description to a tee, telling its story more with indiscernible English brogue and less with apropos images. Set early in the 17th Century, a family led by patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) abandons its plantation over disagreements in religious belief. Months later they are settled with a newborn son, failing to harvest their corn crops. The Witch starts as a period piece and works its way into the realm of the mystical, creating questions after the infant is stolen from the oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) in the light of day.
With direct connections to the Salem Witch Trials, the film gains our interest, passively, by inciting a he said she said dramatic denunciation. The religious extremism proves to be a point of reference as well, not just for the characters to lean upon in times of need and want, but for Eggers to tell a tale of hypocrisy and mania. Paranoia seems to be the most common and complex thematic element in this tiny little movie, but with multiple outlets to channel the same idea, The Witch doesn’t expand upon its own mythology. It always feels ostensibly real; a bygone depiction of an era gone by. However, the film strays away from the story too often to be lauded but also engages us enough in thought to be very good.
The problem with The Witch is that it has so many great ideas and fails – over and over again – to contextually elaborate upon them. It may work here and there given the movie’s purposefully ambiguous nature, especially because of the fantastic performance by newcomer Taylor-Joy in a challenging role. It’s clear that the film likens the image of devout belief to the susceptibility of temptatious sin, and in the end, neither stance is depicted as the direct gateway to heaven above or hell below. The Witch is certainly technically adroit, but all around too far-reaching. This variation on the horror genre alludes more than it attracts.
“You cannot escape the wood.”
Rating: 3 out of 5