Anya Taylor-Joy stars in writer/director Robert Eggers’ ‘The Witch’
Fear cloaked in reality is the most effective scare tactic for horror movies. Pulling down the cloth between the supernatural and reality and stripping the audience of any purity or comfort is what allows classic horror movies to evoke terror from its audience. In the case of The Witch, writer/director Robert Eggers uses our deep societal roots in Roman Catholic theology, the fear of isolation from civilization, and the stripping of our purity to consume us in a world that is both familiar and real, but also removed from the sanctuary of our comfortable well-being.
It is 1630s New England and a Puritan family, led by patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), have been driven out of the plantation settlement over differences in religious views. Now out on the land, William and his family must fend for themselves in the wilderness as they try to create a new life.
One day, while playing with her baby brother, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) opens her eyes to find her brother completely gone. Distraught from the mysterious disappearance, her mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), retreats to her bed with tears and prayers while William and his son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) attempt to keep stability during the trying time. But normalcy is not a luxury for this family as tension among the members leads to Caleb and Thomasin leaving their land and attempting to fix the issues facing their family.
Along this trek, the two are separated and Caleb is brought into contact with the darkness of the woods — placing even more uncertainty and despair amongst this family.
Immediately, the audience is drawn into the ambiance of The Witch and the isolation Eggers leaves you in. Darkened trees and the sense of anonymity are the only things that surround their land and Eggers steeps the landscape into the same bleakness of the plot. Sinking his teeth deeply into the nightmares of Christianity at this period in history, Eggers’ characters are wrapped in guilt, which develops into sin.
Thomasin feels guilty for the disappearance of her baby brother while on her watch. Katherine feels anger towards her daughter for letting her child go and at her husband for bringing her family out into this solitude. Caleb feels guilty for his sexual thoughts towards his sister and the fact that she has had the majority of the blame placed on her for the recent problems. William feels guilty for his actions that led to his family being put in this predicament and pleads with God to show pity on his family for his wrongdoings.
This religious restriction creates tension between the family, who do not have the ability to freely repent for their transgressions. Thomasin has remorse for what has happened and shows a willingness to pray to God to right the wrongs that she has been apart of. But there is also a disconnect between the deity that they pray to — further isolating them from any sort of communicating party. By the end of the film, she is drawn to the witches of the forest, not just because of the acts that she has committed, but the freedom that they seem to possess.
Religion is what drove them out of their settlement and it has been silent since they left. The characters grapple with whether there is really truth to faith because of these bad things happening to them. Among all these acts, they see their cries to God going unheard. As Thomasin disrobes and accepts the devilish offer in the film’s climactic scene, it is her removing the shackles of religion and ideology for a better sense of freedom and power.
The beauty of The Witch comes from Eggers ability to show us something that feels wrong. It would be tough to classify the film as overtly scary, but more creepy and skin-crawling due to the nature of the actions taking place. In the end scene, the voice asks Thomasin if she would like to live deliciously and throughout the course of the movie, and leading into the third act, The Witch is asking us the same question.
Do we want to continue to shackle ourselves with our preconceptions of what this movie should be like or do we want to disrobe and walk along the fire, leaving our initial fears behind. In a movie where the characters are asked to shed their ideologies and become completely consumed with the evil around them, The Witch asks the same thing of its audience, and by accepting, we enter something feeling so surreal, but also so humane.