If you've heard anything about The Witch, it's probably people saying that writer-director Robert Eggers' feature debut is "the scariest movie of the year". And The Witch is indeed full of horrors. But the scariest things in this movie don't actually originate in the supernatural. Eggers did meticulous research to depict the difficult lives of 17th century Puritan farmer William (Ralph Ineson) and his family. In The Witch, survival becomes even more challenging when the man, his wife and his five children are banished from their settlement into the New England countryside. Carting their few possessions, they must rebuild their lives again from scratch and in complete isolation. Their only "neighbour" is the title character, whose sinister presence is quickly telegraphed to the viewer by shots of the forest, backed by eerie music. The family hasn't even finished building their new barn when their youngest member, an infant boy, is snatched by the red-cloaked crone. What happens to the child? Eggers shows us, and it's gut-wrenching.
Eggers is smart to get the monster reveal out of the way extremely early. Otherwise, we might be distracted by wondering if there's really something lurking behind the trees, other than bad vibes. With the outside threat of the old woman firmly established, the viewer can focus on the family's more dreary concerns — failing crops, the whereabouts of a prized silver cup, a young teenager's guilty glances at his older sister's chest — as well as the conflicts that begin to ripen, as the metaphorical walls close in. "We will conquer this wilderness. It shall not consume us!" William thunders stubbornly.
But nobody has much confidence in the patriarch. After all, it's his inability to play nice with the colony's religious leaders that's gotten them banished — and it was most likely his idea to leave the safety of England in the first place. After she loses her baby, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) begins to question her faith, and admits how much she longs to return home. With both parents nearing the breaking point, the other four children — bratty twins Mercy and Jonas, stoic Caleb and eldest daughter Thomasina (Anya Taylor-Joy) — also begin to crack.
Most adrift in this environment is Thomasina, whose future looks bleak from every angle. When we first meet her, we hear her prayers — mostly confessions of impure thoughts and urges, since the only way she can rebel is inside her own mind. But she soldiers on, doing more than her share of chores and watching the other children on behalf of her grief-stricken mother.
Thomasina — whose delicate blonde beauty is a perfect fit for The Witch's fairy-tale leanings; she's basically a Puritan Briar Rose — most embodies the film's interwoven themes of religion, guilt, fear and desire. Through her, we experience the drudgery of farm life, and her escalating realisation that her lot in life is rather bleak. She's blamed for the baby's disappearance. She's blamed for stealing the silver cup. She's blamed when yet another tragedy befalls another family member. And, of course, this all leads to her being accused of witchcraft. As far as her future goes, her best-case scenario is that some villagers will take her in as a housemaid; the worst case is that the "Thomasina is a witch" rumour will be believed, and will spread until she's doomed.
But rest assured, The Witch is not just a movie about an unhappy girl struggling to accept her closed-off life. There's more to the story, which we won't spoil here. And it is a horror movie, after all; aside from that damn baby-snatching witch, there's a freaky goat the kids call "Black Phillip", a genuinely alarming possession scene and no shortage of shocking imagery.
But The Witch's classic horror elements serve to complement its underlying narrative about the terrors of being stifled, confined, lonely and utterly without hope — and the intense shame that accompanies those forbidden emotions. This movie is darker than dark. And it will haunt you.
The Witch will have a limited release in Australia on 17 March 2016.
Images courtesy of A24