The set-up is simple: an exiled family settles in a patch of land next to a forest. But there’s something quite off – that piece of land looks lifeless and that forest is creepy.
True enough, The Witch does not waste time and delivers a tragedy early on. What follows next is a series of inexplicable hardships and events. When their life isn’t threatened by these occurrences, their sanity is challenged. The family’s belief in their faith and each other fall apart.
The movie uses sparse visual effects and filmmaking elements to help the slow-burning plot. The detailed production design paints period-accurate and lived-in set pieces. The cinematography (shot in the rare 1:1.66 ratio and with mostly natural light) along with camera work provides a well-defined world and subtle yet engaging scenes. The sound design, a combination of creepy chorals and shrieking strings, effectively heightens that sense of dread and amplify the creepy imagery.
In between these moments, The Witch takes the opportunity to say something more than a family going batshit crazy.
At first, it’s not clear who is the protagonist of the story. Thomasin becomes the central figure in the movie as she bears the brunt of her family’s anxieties. The parents decide that as a young woman, it’s better for her to serve another family and have one less mouth feed. But the movie doesn’t blame any of its characters for their actions. It’s a hard life in untapped soil.
The movie reveals the flaws in their close-minded beliefs. The family’s emotional turmoil clashes with their rigid religious convictions until eventually, fear leads to doubt which turns to anger until it spirals into hysteria.
Without relying on CGI, it’s up to the characters to suspend our belief. The whole cast delivers great performances. Ralph Ineson delivers a stern and serious William, but you can also see that he is a well-meaning and self-deluded patriarch. Kate Dickie lends Katherine enough vulnerability and resentment to provide more dimensions to a grieving mother. Anya Taylor-Joy makes a memorable Thomasin on the verge of womanhood, innocent yet also sly when needed. Harvey Scrimshaw makes a believable Caleb, who’s good-hearted but still susceptible (and stares at her sister’s boobs).
All of this makes for a solid movie that appeals to a certain kind of audience.
The Witch is ambiguous and prefers to tease that something wicked this way comes. It’s a metaphor for religious intolerance while serving as a coming-of-age tale.
Viewers who have a long attention span and appreciate filmmaking as a craft will find a satisfying movie. The Witch combines the fear of the unknown and one’s own imagination to deliver its scares.
In the end, as Thomasin is released from her family’s suppressive moral values and comes into her own, The Witch becomes a compelling arthouse horror with a subversive feminist tale.
The Witch is an atmospheric, thought-provoking, and subversive feminist tale thanks to deft cinematography, pacing, and performances.