The Witch is an excellent film that a lot of people are likely going to dismiss either because it is a horror film or because it does not meet their expectations of what a horror film should be. To the former, I understand the hesitation but strongly advise giving this one a shot, and to the latter, I also understand your feelings, but you aren’t looking at the film in a broad enough context. Not only is this a horror film, but it’s a family drama, a period piece, and a social commentary on the harms of religious zealotry all rolled into one, and it succeeds at each of those roles with a shocking degree of skill and insight from first-time writer-director Robert Eggers.
Set in 17th century New England, William is exiled from his Puritan village for being a religious extremist (a hell of an accomplishment), forcing him, his wife, and five children to venture out into a nearby forest to take a stab at living off the land. However, strange occurrences start to happen to the family, like the disappearance of their infant child, the failure of their crops for no readily discernible reason, and the young twin children claiming to speak to the family ram. What’s disconcerting about each of these circumstances is that they all exist within the realm of possibility as non-supernatural happenings, yet the paranoia and desperation of the family members causes them to turn upon one another.
The film succeeds not as a traditional vehicle of jump-scares and psychological pressures, but instead exudes a ceaseless feeling of dread, like a nightmare that none of the characters can escape from and, therefore, neither can we as the audience. There are unquestionably paranormal circumstances fueling the family’s self-destructive paranoia, but it is ultimately that paranoia that tears them apart. It’s a slow, painful burn that is hard to watch but impossible to look away from, in no small part due to some excellent performances and attention to bleak historical detail.
And while it is probably hyperbolic to call the story a morality play, there are definite overtures to the follies of religious extremism. The two oldest children are poorly equipped to deal with their burgeoning sexuality in isolation from non-family members, and William is a poor example of a patriarch, incapable of supporting his family through hunt or agriculture, yet blaming his ineptitude on the will of the devil and his servants. There is no question that this family is doomed from the start; the only question is who is to blame, and even with the film’s conceit of real creatures that go bump in the night, the answer is obvious.
The Witch is a thankfully short film, clocking in under ninety minutes in order to make its point succinctly and leave you to ponder the gravity of what you just saw. The ending is likely to be polarizing, but I think it works fine, even if it does leave some previous ambiguities a little too well explained. But in the eighty minutes preceding that, this is a tense, thought-provoking piece of contemplative fiction that will stick with you for a long time. Terror doesn’t necessarily reside in what we don’t understand or what lurks in the shadows; sometimes we understand all too well what threatens us and can do little to stop it. That is a much more unsettling thought.