The Witch Is An Immersive, Unnerving American Folk Tale
'The Witch' is not the sort of horror film that will make you jump out of your seat, but it will make you lean forward and grip the armrests.
The film follows a 17th century Puritan family who cut ties with civilization after an unspecified dispute with the religious leaders of their New England commonwealth. William, the patriarch, leads his wife Katherine and their children into the wilderness in search of a home free from corrupt influences where they can worship and live in peace. They settle in a quiet clearing near a dense, foreboding forest.
Things appear to be going well for William and his clan, but underlying tensions come to a head after newborn Samuel is left in the care of his 14-year-old sister Thomasin and vanishes right before the girl's eyes near the edge of the woods. The infant's disappearance triggers a chain reaction of lies, paranoia, temptation, and spiritual struggles that threaten to turn husband and wife, brother and sister, parents and children against each other.
Writer and director Robert Eggers makes it clear early on that something supernatural is preying upon this family, but they're already turning against one another before they even consider that possibility. A deeply disturbing glimpse of poor baby Samuel's fate sets the audience on edge, but it's the quiet tension waiting to explode back home that makes us more uncomfortable with each passing moment. The suspense and mystery chew on the audience's nerves and play upon deep-rooted fears of rejection, failure, and divine punishment.
There are more blatantly creepy elements at work as well. Young twins Mercy and Jonas seem to have an unnatural obsession with one of the family goats, and a rabbit with an intense, unblinking gaze seems intent on luring eldest son Caleb into the woods. Then there's Thomasin's careless joke about being a witch, which may or may not have been purposefully baited by Mercy and is used against the eldest daughter with nerve-wracking results later in the film.
'The Witch' isn't a film that tries to jolt its audience. There are no ghosts popping out of shadows in the corner or mangled faces appearing in mirrors. It derives its horror from the idea that pure, primordial evil is very much a part of our world, that it takes a personal interest in each of our lives, and that it wants to destroy some of us and bestow favor on others.
'The Witch' is a thought-provoking and genuinely disturbing horror film of a caliber rarely seen today. Its strength lies in tapping into our most basic fears in ways that are familiar, yet not always obvious. As visually compelling as it is chilling, 'The Witch' is sure to linger in the thoughts of anyone who embraces it as a folk tale and allows his or herself to step into the mindset of America's earliest religious settlers.