Writer-director Robert Eggers’ impressive feature purports to be based on many folk tales and traditions of Puritan New England. It’s about what happens to this one family in the 1630s when they are banished from a settled community (over a tiny doctrinal difference?) to a wilderness where they try to farm. An almost casual collection of blights and curses is put down to the influence of a witch who is seen in many forms and may even be a whole coven of creatures – though it’s a toss-up as to whether this malign spirit comes out of the deep dark woods or from within the characters. Eggers is at least as much in the thrall of the ‘suffering peasant’ school of arthouse cinema, with its sense of the physical and spiritual hardship of struggling with weather and landscape to eke out a bare living, as it is a supernatural horror movie. Though magical phenomena are depicted, there’s a sense that it could all be a shared hallucination – paving the way for witch panics and persecutions yet to come.
William (Ralph Ineson), a dour man and fairly helpless as a farmer or hunter, has dragged his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) from England against her will … and now further removes her from any society but his and their children’s. William can’t even shoot a rabbit (the powder blows up in his face) or set a proper snare (he uses a man-trap). The focus is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), their beautiful daughter, who takes the blame for many things – culminating with a shock moment as she is playing peek-a-boo with the family’s youngest when the baby is suddenly taken away. We see the witch (Bathsheba Garnett) sacrificing the child and smearing herself with its blood, and talk of a wolf seems far-fetched since animals are scarce in these woods. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Thomasin’s brother, is erotically obsessed with her in a way which makes their mother jealous, while younger twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) innocently or not-so innocently accuse her of being the witch of the woods, a title she claims when turning the tables to terrify them but later has trouble getting rid of. The kids might be consorting with their goat, Black Phillip, a possible Satanic influence who becomes terrifyingly violent in the climax.
William and Caleb take actions (chopping too many logs, heading off for help on the family’s only horse) which have disastrous consequences, but throughout Thomasin is allowed to take the blame for all ills that befall the family – even the loss of a prized silver cup, Katherine’s heirloom, which William has sold. Puritan oppressiveness and enforced obedience just make everyone unhappy, as the petty, useless patriarch fails to listen to or protect the family he has dragged into the woods probably to die … until the only course a girl has is to embrace the label stuck on her and become a witch,ambiguously seeking out others of her kind as if this story has been replayed on wretched homesteads all over the colony. It’s a beautiful film, which makes its wilds as magical as they are threatening, and risks alienating the straight-up horror audience by a deliberately slow pace and plot-lurches, with sudden changes and abandonments of story threads and dialogue (often taken from historical record) which sounds as odd and funny as it is horrific.
The Witch would make an interesting double bill with Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist, which has a similar menaced-family-on-a-meagre-farm-in-the-woods feel – and even a shares the unusual bit of business about setting a man-trap for smaller game – but takes place after the fall rather than before the rise of civilisation.