Catching Up: The Witch (2016)
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Ralph Ineson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickey, Harvey Scrimshaw, Lucas Dawson, Ellie Grainger
Back when I was when college, I encountered on Youtube a “Christian” with a very clear message: If you like movies, then you’re in love with your own sin, and are therefore a servant of the Devil. As a Christian and a movie lover, I tried to talk to this man to explain to him my point of view on things, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He was quite antagonistic, would quote the scriptures he felt supported his stance, and would actually tell others they weren’t true believers if they didn’t worship God exactly as he did.
At the time, this hurt me, and it filled my heart with anger and doubt. Could God really see me as His enemy because of a hobby that I’m passionate about? Is it really so easy to be damned to Hell? Didn’t Jesus Himself use storytelling (or parables) to spread His truth? There were certain messages I got from the man where I felt like he meant well and was sincerely hoping to bring salvation to my soul, but his judgmental attitude had the exact opposite effect. Talking to him didn’t bring me closer to God; it made me angry at Him.
The patriarch of the family at the heart of Robert Eggers’ The Witch reminded me a lot of that man I encountered in college. The movie opens in a small New England village in the 1630s, where farmer William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are being banished from their village because of William’s extreme and fanatical behavior (before leaving, he refers to the villagers as “false Christians”), and after traveling for a day, they settle in a clearing surrounded by an eerie forest that, unfortunately for them, happens to inhabited by a coven of witches.
What is interesting about the way the movie portrays William is that he’s never seen as an evil or loathsome man. We truly get the sense that he loves and cares for his family. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, he falls on his knees and prays that God would save his children from whatever evil is tormenting his family. He truly means well for them, but his fanatical ways have led him and his family into the very evil hands that he was trying to protect them from. Religion itself is not evil; it’s when people use their faith as a weapon that it becomes harmful.
The one member of the family who suffers the most is eldest daughter Thomasin (a phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy). It was under her care that her baby brother Samuel was taken; it is her who is accused of stealing her mother Katherine’s (Kate Dickey) silver cup, even though it was her father who took it, and he allows her to take the blame for a time; and it is her that her mother fears and distrusts the most. In one of the most intensely acted and powerfully written scenes in the movie, Thomasin unleashes her anger at her father when he, like his wife, begins to suspect her of witch craft.
There are other troubles plaguing the family as well. Second oldest child Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) tries hard to live up to his father’s expectations while fighting the lustful urges he begins feeling for Thomasin. Younger twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) openly accuse Thomasin of witch craft after a particularly tragic moment (and based on a jest by Thomasin to shut her malice-spewing younger sister up) and spend an inordinate amount of time around the family goat Black Philip, whom they claim whispers to them. When Katherine notes that Thomasin is becoming more of a woman, she and William plan to send her off to another family, which causes Caleb to venture out into the woods to find food and Samuel in hopes of changing his parents’ minds (which ends disastrously).
Writer and director Robert Eggers immerses you in the time period by having the characters speak in Old English (lots of thee, thy, thine, and thous in the dialogue) and creates an atmosphere of almost unholy dread from the first frame to the very last. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke not only manages to conjure up images of almost frightening beauty, but he’s even able to express the film’s central thesis through a number of well-placed camera shots. This is even true of the movie’s simultaneously silly and sad final image, which shows a particular character floating out of the light of a fire and into the hellishly black night sky.
The performances are nothing if not superb. Ineson is given quite a tricky role to play, but he manages to make William a character who’s both frustratingly prideful yet oddly sympathetic. Kate Dickey plays a character who gradually goes through a mental deterioration that is not only difficult to watch, but also quite creepy (just look at the scene involving a crow near the end), and Dickey never strikes a wrong note with the role. Scrimshaw is especially terrific as the impressionable Caleb, and who acts up a storm during a scene where he seems to be possessed, while Dawson and Grainger are quite memorable as the twins.
The best performance is, I’d argue, turned in by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy. Walking away with some of the movie’s most dramatically charged scenes (not just the aforementioned argument between her and her father, but also her brutal final scene with her mother), the amount of fire and depth that Taylor-Joy brings to her character is positively stunning for someone making their acting debut. With her terrific performance here and her equally memorable performance in the otherwise mediocre Morgan, she’s got me excited about M. Night Shyamalan’s Split coming out this January (to say I’m excited about a Shyamalan movie is really something, given how awful a number of his films are).
While there is no question that there is a witch out there in the woods (the movie makes it very clear what happens to baby Samuel without delving into the gory details, and is all the more unsettling because of it), what’s scariest and perhaps the most tragic about The Witch is that the family does more damage to itself than the witch does to them. Yes, the witch deals two very devastating blows to them, but from there, she/they don’t have to do anything else. The family implodes under the strain, and by the time the father swallows his pride and agrees to return to the village, the damage has already been done.
Final Grade: *** ½ (out of ****)
Rated R for disturbing violent images and nudity