Writer-director Robert Eggers‘ profoundly gripping, remarkably assured feature-length debut, The Witch: A New England Folktale, opens with the expulsion of a family of seven from a New England Puritan settlement, circa 1630, six decades before the infamous Salem witch trials became synonymous with repressive, superstition-fueled paranoia, religious fanaticism, and unjust persecution. It’s no accident Eggers’ opens The Witch with the family’s expulsion from the relatively safe, secure environs of the gated settlement, both because of the presumably intentional Biblical overtones (Eden) and the result (a potentially tragic fate awaiting the family outside the settlement’s gates). Caused by a faith-based conflict between the settlement’s elders and the family patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson, Game of Thrones), as willfully stubborn and authoritarian as the Puritan elders he excoriates for their misguided beliefs (like most religious zealots, William unequivocally believes the Christian God speaks to and through him), the family’s expulsion leaves them in a precarious state forced to fend for themselves materially and spiritually without the resources and protections of the Puritan community.
Starting a new life and homestead near a foreboding forest filled with foreseeable (and unforeseeable) dangers, however, proves to be an incalculable misjudgment on William’s part. While he struggles to provide his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), adolescent son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and their infant son, with enough food to last the coming winter, he proves to be a failure as a hunter and a farmer. William’s presumed role as spiritual leader fare just as poorly. Constrained by a severe, rigid dogma where anything related to sex and sexuality carries a heavy burden of sin, original, mortal, and otherwise, the family begins to fragment and fracture, in large part due to the increasingly troubling presence of Thomasin, a young woman entering maturity (and everything that implies). Thomasin becomes the focus both of her younger brother’s confused yearnings and her parents’ distrust, especially after the youngest member of the clan, a newborn infant, disappears on a clear day under Thomasin’s semi-watchful care (he disappears during a game of peekaboo), a moment of abject, shiver-inducing terror bound to resonate with contemporary moviegoers raised with fears, however realistic, of abductions of the “stranger danger” variety.
The Witch gives the supernatural horror game away early on to the audience, removing any doubt or mystery about the coven’s existence. While Thomasin falls under suspicion for her brother’s disappearance, the real culprits, a coven of witches who live free of the repressive, oppressive constraints of male-dominated civilization in the forest, escape relatively unnoticed. There’s something primal, of course, present in the forest, both metaphorically and literally, a general, generalized fear of the unknown (what we don’t see might not only hurt us, it might do far worse things to us). The witches live outside Puritan society, creating their own apart from the presence of the Puritans and the patriarchy they – and by extension, William – signify. Their presence signals an obvious attack, an alternative world view, to the patriarchy and in Eggers’ film at least, the patriarchy is no match for the unfettered, unrestrained power of the feminine represented by the witches and, to a lesser extent, Thomasin. They’re the family’s worst, superstition-inspired fears given flesh and blood, though in Eggers’ depiction, they’re not superstition at all. They’re real, as is Satan, aka Lucifer, the fallen archangel who not only rules over Hell, but also corrupts the innocent and not-so-innocent alike.
Eggers naturally understands that the worst existential threats don’t come from without, but from within, from the repressed impulses and instincts, the suppressed fears and anxieties, the buried, half-formed thoughts and feelings that dominate the interior lives of his Puritan family. He also finds no better center for those internal dangers than Thomasin, a character who slowly emerges as central to Eggers’ unfolding narrative, themes, and subtext, and Anya Taylor-Joy, the actress who plays Thomasin with impressive precision and depth. As the world around them unravels, including a lost crop that threatens the family with starvation, the blame for the family’s misfortune shifts, first imperceptibly, then explicitly, to Thomasin. As a young woman in 1630s New England, she has little recourse but to bear the suspicions, accusations, rebukes stoically. A formalist by choice, Eggers quietly lets the camera capture Thomasin’s inner struggle and outer conflict at a remove. Eggers’ eye for composition – undoubtedly aided by his background as a stage director and production designer – and carefully calibrated camera movement, not to mention the natural lighting that obscures more than it reveals and an appropriately dissonant, discordant score, adds to the increasing sense of suffocating foreboding and overpowering dread surrounding a splintering, fracturing family.