I haven’t been scared of witches since … well, never. As a child, I was more frightened of creepy dolls and serial killers (probably the result of a premature viewing of “Child’s Play”); witches just reminded me of Maggie Smith dressed up as Minerva McGonagall. While watching Robert Eggers’s “The Witch,” I was genuinely creeped by witches for the first time in my life.
In early 17th century New England a puritanical pilgrim, William, (Ralph Ineson) is at odds with his plantation’s church. In an act of religious pride he moves his family outside the plantation’s walls and into the unsettled Northeastern wilderness. However, when William’s daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), allows the family’s newborn to suddenly vanish, the family begins to descend into chaos.
Going into the theater, I was anticipating reviewing “The Witch” as a genre film, but don’t be fooled by the title; Eggers (the film’s rookie writer and director) has far loftier aspirations. The script is thematically dense and every element of the film, from the lighting to the camera movement and placement, complements those themes. The dialogue, too, is sometimes almost impenetrable and undeniably ambitious. Don’t expect cheap jump scares or a threadbare plot.
This alone would keep “The Witch” firmly entrenched in the realm of pretentious art films, but in Eggers and his entire team’s execution of these ideas, the work is magnificently elevated. It is a tonal masterpiece. From the beginning montage, where we are introduced to the world of the supernatural, to the ending’s chillingly satisfying final image, you can see the meticulous calculation that went into the making of this movie. The result is a slow burn that never feels boring, but instead leaves you waiting, in anxious anticipation, for a moment of terrifying climax. Moments like that are why we go out to the movies. There’s nothing better than that sense of fulfillment, especially when it’s tinged with a lingering psychological thrill.
My lone misgiving with the film, though, lies in the acting. Perhaps, in his concentrating on the stunning visuals, Eggers ignored his child actors, who periodically seem lost in the script’s archaic diction. The adults are fine, and I was mesmerized by Ineson’s gruff, haunting voice, but young Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are occasionally grating, and distractingly so. Even Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who nails his important exorcism scene, falls flat on a few of the lower-key scenes.
Taylor-Joy is the lone exception. She is mesmerizing throughout, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she becomes a breakout star as a result of her work here.
Those few hiccups won’t ruin the film for a student looking for an interesting, new scary movie to occupy a study break, though, and for cinephiles searching for the next, modern horror classic, “The Witch” is your ticket.