At it’s best, Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is an outstanding stage play. It attempts to be something in the vein of “The Shining” in which it relies on its atmospheric tension to spread throughout its story. Something that I noticed, enjoyed, and waited to be matched by a story that is a self-professed as “a New England Folktale,” or a fairy tale, which are meant to be parables for moral values, which raises the question of what moral values are being paralleled through this fictitious tale?
It’s a feminized horror movie, placing Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter, as our conduit of sorts. We follow her from the very beginning of the film, which is meanderingly slow, too slow in fact. Nevertheless, it takes place in a late 16th-century pilgrimage where our colonial family is forced to leave for being too puritan for a Puritan community. Forced to leave their home, they move to a remote location near the edge of the woods. On a cloudy mid-day, while playing a game of peekaboo with the newborn son, Samuel, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) removes her hands from her eyes to see a blanket without a baby.
We watch this person in a red cloak hurdle through the woods, moving briskly and heavily. We soon discover that this is a witch attempting to remain young, how she does that is disturbingly authentic, seeing as Eggers relied upon satanic cultural traditions to write his screenplay. This event creates a diffusion in the family in which they struggle to cope with the loss of a child, but also begin to become tormented by both each other and the possibility of Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) being a witch in hiding. Blaming the power of female independence for the treachery and wretchedness that has begun to curse the family.
It’s a feminist revenge movie in hiding, attempting to be far more clever than it actually is. Not to mention the lack of terror to be found in an atmosphere seeping with tension, something that Eggers builds remarkably. Alongside the eerie composition provided by Mark Korven, Eggers and his cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke (“Fray” & “Shimmer Lake”), give us this colloquially haunting scenery. The woods and autumn look of the environment can become quite chilly to watch, but the story doesn’t seem to match this horrifying beauty constructed by these three talented technicians.
Eggers’ screenplay is missing that essence of horror for me. It has scary concepts within it, such as the blindness of faith that can separate families or the discrimination of female independence within those sermons of religion, but they don’t ever feel focused upon. It’s as if Eggers’ is playing every side of the fence without deciding on what this story is about, which is meant to create ambiguity, but it also manifests confusion.
It can be hard to diffuse between what is scarier, a witch cursing a family or the inherent conflict between autonomy and trust in something that has been inflicted upon you. Eggers never chooses between the two or introduces anything that enforces either message, a trait that feels as if it's causing this story to feel empty for myself.
The film is very artsy-smartsy though, so it’s hard to say there should be one clean-cut way to how this narrative should be viewed or dissected, but that seems to be an inherent flaw in storytelling. Making the screenwriter sound so much smarter than he is, as if he’s afraid to choose a purpose to his tale because he’s scared of being unable to carry a metaphor to it's meaning.
That’s not to say the film isn’t scary though, Eggers’ does provide some incredible moments of atmospheric tension as I described above, but also some visuals that are simply disturbing. Specifically our introduction to the witch in this murky and firelit cabin in the woods, we see her stew around the remains of a newborn's body, in a sequence that is as terrifying as it sounds. The authenticity of that scene is also what’s horrifying, as there we’re satanic cults that we’re attempting to label this film as a propaganda piece for their belief system, another unsettling thing to be found in a film brought down by its lack of focus.
Anya Taylor-Joy is unashamedly confident in this performance. Carrying this aura of expertise to her role, despite this being her first leading role. She carries this film in those duller moments with this level of believability and charisma that is hard to ignore, giving the film far more than it gives to her. Ralph Ineson, who depicts the father, has such a raspy and deepened voice that fits the time in which his character resides. He like Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw do fall into the category of stage performers in which they’re unable to make their dialogue sound natural or organic.
That barrier between investment and the self-awareness of watching a movie becomes noticeable, diffusing all tension that was fabricated before that point. Harvey struggles with this in particular while depicting the oldest son; he becomes a target for the witch for his aspiring lustful nature as a young man. When he becomes the reliable aspect of our horror, he walks a tightrope between overacting and not acting enough. It’s a performance that brings the whole movie to a holt at times, but that old-English dialect is at fault as well, feeling unnatural to both the actors reading these lines and the audience listening to them.
Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is a surprising and better than most horror feature that plays with its artsy-fartsy style far more than it should. It’s old-English dialogue, and sheer lack of purpose brings those moments of atmospheric strain back down to earth in a way that isn’t near as terrifying as it could’ve been. The film, near its end, has a decision to make between that parable moral tale or a literal witch tale, I think Eggers made the wrong decision. Sometimes, reality is far more terrifying than fiction.
Editor's Note: This review was originally published on Feb 26, 2016 to critiquingcinema.com and has been re-written for qualitative purposes.