Right from the jump, let me be clear: I admire the hell out of The Witch. The performances are raw and real. Writer-director Robert Eggers spends 92 minutes bringing his teapot to a boil, and rewards his patient audience with a wickedly disturbing finale. Compared to most of the schlock out there, this is Masterpiece Theater.
You’re probably expecting a “but,” and this one will be worthy of Sir Mix-a-Lot: But, as much as I admired this movie, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. That will make this an unusual review, in which I’ll hand out a middling 3 stars, but still recommend you stream it. After all, my apprehensions about The Witch amount to mere matters of personal taste. I suspect many readers will enjoy this experience much more than I did.
But, we’ll talk more about that later. Meantime, let’s unpack this little historical nightmare, shall we? The film whisks us to the New England colonies, circa 1630. As the story opens, a family of Puritans gets banished from their community and must fend for themselves, out in the dark and deep woods.
They’re a fairly large clan: William (Ralph Ineson) is grumbly, gravelly-voiced dad. Katherine (Kate Dickie), the mother, is pious and histrionic. The children range from a headstrong teenager (Anya Taylor-Joy), all the way down to a cooing infant. As the family settles into the middle of nowhere, an unease seems to blanket their lives. Evil descends all around them.
I’ll tiptoe around the specifics, as I don’t want to rob the film of its shock value. As the title implies, a nearby witch (Bathsheba Garnett) begins plaguing the Puritans with her necromancy. We learn that she may have further allies, including one of the family’s own barnyard animals. This sorcery exacts a heavy toll on this once-loving family: As their numbers dwindle, paranoia and religious hysteria cause them to turn on each other.
From that lean plot, Eggers crafts a beautiful, austere horror-drama. A wintry aesthetic pervades the film; almost every shot features naked trees, crackling ground, and silvery clouds that could unload snow at any minute. This shivering cold cuts to the bone, as if Mother Nature herself has abandoned this family to a hardscrabble death.
The cast goes all-in on the film’s lean desperation, acting as if their lives depended on it. Ineson excels as the level-headed dad who feels his family slipping beyond his control. Dickie brings a Mary Todd vibe to the mother, whose mounting grief imbues her with the ferocious temperament of a mortally wounded animal. But the film’s true revelation is Taylor-Joy, who delivers a star-making turn as a girl who’s both both gentle and pure, but also fatally impulsive.
Now, let’s talk about why this movie is a near-miss for me. Like The Northman, Eggers’ later film, this is a dour, exhausting experience. There’s absolutely no humor or joy to mollify the story’s unrelenting drabness. Many scenes depict violence against children, and they are disturbing, but they also wore me down. Even at 92 minutes, there are stretches where The Witch gets too miserable for its own good.
Still, that’s just me. I’m not a horror fan, but when it comes time for Halloween fare, I reach for Fright Night, or Shaun of the Dead. I need a wink and a smile with my scary movies–a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. (Find me anyone else in the world who can work a Mary Poppins quote into their horror reviews, and I’ll eat one of my hiking boots.) With all that said, I know people who adore this movie, and return to it every Halloween. So, despite those three stars, I’ll go ahead and point you in the direction of this odd, fascinating little movie. The Witch is intelligent and meticulous, and you may enjoy it more than I did.
92 min. R. HBOMax.