Directed by Robert Eggers.
2015. Rated R, 93 minutes.
Many of the earliest colonists here, in what was then called The New World (Terrence Malick made a very beautiful looking, but very boring movie by that name, by the way) were people who fled England in pursuit of religious freedom. Therefore, it should be no surprise they took their faith very seriously. This includes the Puritan group William (Ineson) belongs to. They banish him and his family from their plantation over a difference in interpretation of The New Testament. William takes his clan and builds themselves a home on the edge of the forest. The family includes wife Katherine (Dickie), "tween" aged Caleb (Scrimshaw), fraternal pre-teen twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson), newborn Samuel, and late-teen Thomasin (Taylor-Joy). It's Thomasin who is watching Samuel when he disappears. She's actually watching him pretty darn close and is playing peek-a-boo with him. She covers her eyes for no more than a handful of seconds and sees that Samuel is gone when she uncovers them. The family is understandably devastated, but curiously inactive in trying to find the child. The reason is they believe the baby was taken by the witch who lives in the woods who kills children and makes a "flying ointment" for her body. Strange things continue happening, in particular to Caleb. The twins seem a little too knowing, William and Katherine are at odds over what's going on. Thomasin is bewildered by it all and desperately trying to figure it out. Even the animals on the family's makeshift farm appear to be behaving oddly.
The Witch, or The VVitch as I've seen it, is atypical of most modern horror. It's better for that. In lieu of trying to scare you for the moment, it establishes a sense of dread that creeps into your heart. It does this by pulling us ever-so-slowly into the world of this family. We really get to know these people and their fears, which drive the movie. Even if their beliefs and method of doing things are at odds with our own, and they almost undoubtedly will be for viewers three hundred plus years after the film is set, we understand those fears are all-encompassing. They literally live every moment of their lives trying to stay in God's good graces while guarding against the devil they know is near in not just a spiritual sense, but a physical one. The question of who is infected by this devil is one that drives wedges between the family's various members. It fractures our own feelings, as well. We're not sure who we side with as the family splinters and frays, but we sympathize with all of them.
The cast does an excellent job of selling all of this to us. Ralph Ineson, who plays William, is as committed to his role as anyone has been in a horror flick in a really long time, at least any that I've seen. He fully becomes a man with the courage of his convictions, but one who is paralyzed by fear because of them. Kate Dickie gives us a wonderfully distraught mother. She is in the most interesting position of them all, because her loyalties are the most torn. She completely believes in the patriarchy of her times, yet longs for her lost child. She is a true believer in God's will, yet questioning whether Satan is winning this particular battle. Even youngster Scrimshaw does very good work. The linchpin, however, is the work turned in by Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin. She is really the protagonist, as much of the film is seen through her eyes. We feel her frustration as her relationship with her family becomes increasingly strained.
For some viewers, I imagine their patience might be the thing strained. I prefer to see it as unhurried storytelling, but some might think it too slow. The pacing lends itself to being called languid, but it's a perfect fit for the tale this film is telling. Besides, at barely over ninety minutes it isn't around long enough to wear out its welcome. Another obstacle might be the old-timey English spoken throughout. Those averse to Shakespeare as its written need not bother. Finally, it is a predictable movie. Predictability can be a death knell. We that in mind, The Witch is a bit of a marvel, as well. It's a film that never really hides where it's going. A few of the particulars might be surprising, but how it all turns out is not. We end up in precisely the spot we thought we would. Amazingly, it doesn't really matter all that much. The reason it doesn't is because this is a film much more about the journey than the destination. That journey is a dark, unsettling one, as much about the questions it raises, as it is about the intrinsic frights it provides. It draws us in, twists us into knots before depositing us in the place where we knew we'd wind up.