Early in The Witch, the staggeringly scary new horror film from first-time director Robert Eggers, there's a shot that neatly encapsulates everything that makes the film successful.
A small family, banished from their Puritan community in 1600s America, heads out into the wilderness to begin a new life. One night they're forced to hunker down in the woods, and they huddle around a small fire, faces illuminated by its flickering light. They're surrounded by darkness, terror. Who knows what could be lurking out there?
But there's just as much darkness and terror right there at the fireside. On some level, these people don't trust each other. The devil lurks in the spaces between them.
The Witch is a complete immersion into the early American wilderness
Watching The Witch requires several leaps of faith. For one thing, it means letting go of essentially everything you might hold true about religion or philosophy or even American history.
It flirts, somewhat dangerously, with the notion that maybe those behind the Salem witch trials were onto something, since it introduces a literal witch before the end of the first act. And to really buy into it, you have to, in essence, immerse yourself not just in Christianity, but in an outmoded form of it, with a strict moral code and ferocious religiosity that will look foreign to most modern eyes.
Of course, these characters believe in witches as a matter of course. When the family's two young children, twins, start hinting that the woods contain a dark presence, their warning is treated not as a childish game, but as a very serious accusation that carries some weight. And by the time this happens, Eggers has so successfully immersed you in this point of view that you half believe it.
Because this is a horror movie, there really is a witch out there (as mentioned, we see her quite early on). But Eggers keeps you guessing as to her true meaning and what she stands for in the context of the other characters' staunch, Puritanical morality.
The Witch isn't a horror film where the scares come from big spooky jolts, or from gore. No, The Witch is a horror film that creeps up on you, spreading its tendrils slowly across the landscape of your mind. The movie's biggest scare isn't the witch; it's the idea that everything you believe might be wrong.
This is a movie about realizing everything you think is true is a lie
There are precious few movies about what happens when a fundamentalist belief system crumbles. This is partly because that's an incredibly abstract idea, one that's hard to depict on screen. But it's also just the sort of thing most movie genres struggle to depict, because it relies on audience whiplash. First it has to get you believing one thing; then it has to convince you of the exact opposite. When not executed well, it can pull the audience out of the story entirely.
Eggers's trick is that he doesn't once argue that the family is wrong to believe what they do. In a world with literal witches, such tremendous faith might be the only way to can keep the darkness at bay. But he's also careful to leave us with the thought that the witches might be seen as evil mostly because they stand for feminine power.
At the center of The Witch is the family's eldest daughter, a young woman named Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose coming of age is even more fraught for taking place in a secluded wilderness with only her family around. Her mother seems to suspect her of being untrustworthy even before witches enter the story, and her younger brother keeps sneaking glances down her shift.
Thomasin is a woman growing up in a tradition that denies her any power, but in a place where her very presence essentially gives her tremendous power. The Witch isn't so much a story of a family fighting back against a witch as it is a story of Thomasin slowly learning to navigate both poles of that dynamic, especially once the young twins start a whisper campaign against her to say that, no, she's the witch everybody's afraid of.
Eggers has essentially crafted a morality tale, then. Much of The Witch's story is drawn from real, contemporaneous accounts and folk tales, written by very real Puritans who had moved to North America and saw the deep, dark woods as foreboding and forbidding. The film's strangest, freakiest images come from those stories, told by people who saw a gigantic dark void right on the edge of town and conjured creatures to fill it with horrors.
The film is also superb from a technical standpoint
Key to The Witch's success is the way Eggers lets scenes unfold naturally, in long shots that take up lots of time. He uses as much natural light as possible, aided by the slightly more sensitive eye of digital cameras; while some of the nighttime scenes require extra lighting, in the day, he uses natural shadows to swallow characters up, or cut them in two, half light and half dark.
This gives the film a verisimilitude that essentially slowly accustoms the audience to stranger and stranger things, so that viewers very quickly accept what should otherwise raise their eyebrows. It all looks real, and we feel like innocent bystanders as we watch the family slowly turn against each other. So it must be real, even if part of the story revolves around a potentially evil goat.
But Eggers is also helped by impeccable casting. As the parents, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie (known for the British Office and Game of Thrones, respectively) share a fraying marriage where neither participant quite realizes anything is wrong. Harvey Scrimshaw turns Caleb, the eldest son (who keeps checking out his sister), into a pious figure of righteousness who only slowly realizes how in over his head he is.
But it's Taylor-Joy who makes the movie work, and it's Taylor-Joy who gives a very quiet but very effective performance. As Thomasin deals with her own family's slow-building mistrust of her, she paints a portrait of a young woman who's come to realize that she can't rely on anything she thought was true. Most horror centered on women is about fear of sex, of impregnation. But The Witch is about the fear of what might happen if a woman never realized her own sexual power.
It's a tricky subject to make a movie about, but it's a vital one, too. For as much as The Witch is a horror story, it's also a coming-of-age tale, about that moment when you look at everything you've been taught and realize you know far less than you think you do. It's about the space between seeing the dark, dark woods as full of terrors, and seeing them as full of something new and worth exploring.
The Witch is streaming on Amazon Prime.