“Woudst thou like to live deliciously?”
Despite how terrifying the trailers make it look, ‘The Witch’ is not that kind of horror film. There are no bogeymen popping out of dark corners, no gratuity of gore and nudity (mostly). You will not be jumping out of your seat. It is a more subtle film, where the monsters are real but kept in silhouette and acts of violence are committed off screen (mostly).
The film deals in squirming, psychological uncertainty moreso than traditional scares. After being banished from his village for heresy, Ralph Ineson and his family trek out into the American wilderness. The family is already fragile, racked by poverty and fear but too proud to acknowledge the direness of their situation. The titular crone only needs to apply the right pressure for Ineson’s family to start ripping itself apart.
We see the witch early on; we know she is real; we know that she is powerful and remorseless, but we don’t know when she will appear again. It is her influence rather than her actual presence that weighs on the narrative. Every journey into the woods is filled with quiet dread; every cute, fuzzy woodland creature is a potential source of malice.
Given the political paranoia and a shared supernatural subject matter, comparisons between ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Crucible’ are inevitable. Debut director Robert Eggers deftly captures the sentiments of the current election year. The witch in the woods embodies the malevolent unknown, the “other,” that breeds anxiety and anger and, in the end, drives us to commit acts no less evil than its own out of pride and desperation.
Eggers first effort is something to be envied. His casting choices seem to be pulled straight out of an early colonial painting and the employment of the score is masterful. Eggers cranks up the volume, approaching the unknown like a Kubrickian space odyssey, but is unafraid to pull the cord and let the audience sit unmercifully in silence. His abilities to conjure unease in a few wordless shots and build tension to unbearable levels are the foundations of the film.
‘The Witch’ is a beautifully shot and emotionally uncomfortable movie. But it has more in common with ‘Under the Skin’ than it does with ‘The Conjuring.’ It is meditative and slowly paced, which means it will likely leave gore hounds and thrill seekers unsatisfied. ‘The Witch’ is well worth your attention, but it definitely won’t appeal to everybody.