Adapted from 17th Century puritan folklore with much of its dialogue lifted directly from documents of the time, Robert Eggers’s The Witch is a fully immersive experience that plunges the viewer without a life vest directly into its era and the stark, ascetic lifestyle of its inhabitants. After an abrupt opening sequence where the prideful William refuses to obey the laws of his community above those of his god, he, his wife and five children are banished to a small, remote farmhouse outside of town on the edge of a vast, foreboding forest. The horror clichés could practically write themselves from that point, but Eggers himself resists temptation at nearly every turn, instead choosing to spend a majority of the film examining the consequences of an unshakable faith and implacable religious fervor amidst the slow unraveling of the family unit.
At the center of it all is the eldest daughter, Thomasin, played with impressive maturity by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is the only one present when, upon moving to the farmhouse, her infant sibling mysteriously disappears during an innocent game of peek-a-boo. Her explanation wouldn’t cut it with most families, but her righteously devout, puritanical parents, who at first suggest it may have been a wolf, quickly become suspicious of her and the potential witchcraft that may be going on within the shrouded darkness of the nearby trees. While her mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), becomes increasingly troubled by the thought of their unbaptized baby remaining in the devil’s clutch down below and begins acting increasingly coldly and cruelly towards Thomasin out of spite and desperation, William asserts himself as the patriarch and heads into the woods in search of answers. As more enigmatic events begin to occur, some family members, including the younger twins, whose constant teasing and singing of disturbing folk songs becomes a menacing force in itself, begin to suspect that Thomasin herself is a witch.
Are the changes in Thomasin brought about due to her parents’ mentally abusive behavior, or does she herself seek respite beyond her property lines? Is her brother’s fate the cost of lusting after her or a warning meant for the rest of the family? The Witch treads carefully along such dichotomies, never tipping its hand, merely drawing us further and further into the unknown hazards that lie somewhere beyond. It is the rare debut film that never falters, confident in its vision, assured in its style and fully able to shake you to your core with both terrifying imagery and its emotionally raw drama.