“So much has been made of the authenticity…and of course that’s important to me, but authenticity for the sake of authenticity doesn’t really matter. To understand why the witch archetype was important and interesting and powerful—and how was I going to make that scary and alive again—we had to go back in time to the early modern period when the witch was a reality. And the only way I was going to do that, I decided, was by having it be insanely accurate.”
The impressive and tension filled debut film “The Witch,“ written and directed by Dave Eggers, centers on the struggles and supernatural incidents that happen to a Puritan family in New England in 1630. The opening of the film finds the family having been brought in front of a tribunal. The reason for this, the patriarch of the family, has a staunch difference of opinion regarding how the members of the community are adhering to religious doctrine; he finds it to be lax. Unwilling to change his mindset, he and his family are ordered by the Governor (Julian Richings) to leave the relative safety of the community, and venture out on their own.
The family consists of the parents, William, a stubborn and prideful farmer played by Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones), and his emotionally, fragile wife, Katherine, who is portrayed by BAFTA winner, Kate Dickie (Red Road). The couple’s youngest child is the baby, Samuel (Axtun Henry Dube & Athan Conrad Dube); their oldest son is the pre-teen, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). In addition, there are the mischievous twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), as well as the couple’s oldest child, and the main protagonist of the film, the misunderstood, Thomasin. The part of Thomasin is acted in a very effective manner by Anya Taylor-Joy (Morgan). Even though she is on the cusp of becoming a full grown woman, her role in life, for all intents and purposes, is marginalized; a byproduct of the time period. She is expected to fervently pray, help raise her siblings, and work tirelessly at her chores. She can count on being married off in the near future, and begin bearing her own children soon thereafter.
The majority of the film’s 92 minute duration is confined to one isolated location – the family’s cabin and farm – which is situated on the edge of a foreboding woods. An incident involving Thomasin, is the catalyst, which propels the film from the everyday mundane of the family’s existence, into the eerie occurrences that transpire during the remainder of the movie. While playing a game of peek-a-boo near the edge of the woods, Thomasin shuts her eyes for what amounts to no more than a second. When she opens them, Samuel has vanished, leaving her with no indication of who or what might have taken him. The viewer soon learns he has been taken by an elderly lady. From this one incident, and throughout the film, Thomasin will be the family’s scapegoat for all their ills. In between not sleeping, wanting William to take the family back to the community they’ve left, and reciting countless prayers for her missing child, Katherine lashes out at her daughter. Additionally, her twin siblings accuse her of having made a deal with the devil, after she facetiously told them she had, when she was angry with them. If anyone is keeping company with the devil, it would appear to be the twins, who enjoy spending time with Black Phillip, a creepy looking goat. William doesn’t chastise Thomasin to the same degree Katharine does, but he also offers her little in the way of comfort; opting instead to chop what appears to be an endless supply of firewood. The only member of the family who is seemingly on her side is Caleb. His hormones, however, are starting to awaken certain desires within his mind and body, and, due to the fact that there is no one around for miles, except his family, he appears to be developing an unnatural attraction for Thomasin.
The barren land, which is unable to produce sustainable crops for the family to eat, William’s inability to hunt sizeable game, and Samuel’s disappearance, are not immediately attributed to a witch who lives and dwells in the woods. The reason for the hesitancy, especially on William’s part, to accept that a witch is the cause of the family’s misfortune, is that people during the time period the film takes place, absolutely believed in the validity of the existence of such a being, and the witches power to cause harm. If a witch is the cause of the family’s problems, William knows that he, his wife, and his children are in grave danger. As the film progresses it becomes clear that the witch, while tormenting the entire family, is focusing its energy on Thomasin. The questions is: Is the family’s eldest daughter being targeted because the witch wants to do her a special sort of harm, or does she want to free Thomasin from the oppressive life she is currently living and seems destined to continue to have to endure?
Will William decide he has made a serious error in judgment? Does he ask the members of the community to have mercy on his family and allow them to rejoin the community? Is Samuel ever found? Do other members of the family get abducted by the witch, or worse, die at her hands? Will Thomasin be seduced by the power of the witch or will she opt to side with her family despite their mistreatment of her? I wouldn’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t yet the seen the film, and want to, by answering those questions. Suffice it to say, all of the answers and more will be provided by the film’s conclusion.
“The Witch” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2015. Robert Eggers won the Directing Award at the festival, and the movie was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. The score by Mark Korven (The Border) works perfectly with what is transpiring on screen. Credit must also be given to cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke (Fray), who frames the film in a style that mirrors the desperation and isolation that the family is going through. The film is not going to appeal to everyone. Eggers opted to focus on atmosphere, mood and dread, as opposed to jump scares and gore. Furthermore, Eggers took much of the dialogue of the film straight from historical accounts. For those of you who like the genres of horror and mystery, especially when a less is more approach is taken, you will more than likely find the film to be thought-provoking and entertaining.