PARK CITY – One of the downsides of spending a life mainlining genre films is that there comes a point where you start to feel like you've seen everything and there's no way to be surprised.
“The Witch” surprised me. Quite a bit.
Writer/director Robert Eggers deserves accolades for crafting something that feels timeless. His “New England folk tale” begins with a family standing before a Puritan court in a small plantation town in 1630. William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) stand accused of blasphemy, and William refuses to bend to the will of the court, convinced that he is a true Christian in a way that none of them can be. They are ejected from the community, and William sees it as an opportunity. He leads his family out into the wilderness, where they find a cleared area on the edge of a massive forest.
They build their home there, along with a barn, and they set out to plant crops and become completely self-sufficient. That's not how things unfold, though. Instead, the family finds themselves slowly sliding sideways into madness and despair, and the way Eggers stages things, we're never quite sure of the reality of what we're watching. Like the best of the early Argento films or even (and this is a very big comparison, I realize) “The Shining,” this is a film that plays more like a nightmare than a typical narrative. There is an awful feeling that sets in as the film unfolds, and time after time, Eggers avoids the easy choices that would make this feel like other horror films.
Early on, an infant disappears during a game of peekaboo, and the family's oldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) finds herself trapped in a situation that seems to get more surreal and horrible by the day. She has to contend with three younger siblings, and it seems like each day that passes, her mother grows angrier with her. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who is a few years younger, is starting to notice Thomasin's body, while the twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), play private creepy games that seem to be designed to drive Thomasin mad. Taylor-Joy is the center of the film, and she does incredible work. She's called upon to play some pretty severe extremes, and she seems more than up to the task. By the time the credits roll, she's done so much and gone so far that I imagine this is going to launch her immediately into much higher-profile films. She communicates volumes with a mere look, and there's something about her that seems wise beyond her years.
This is one of those films where I can't think of a single complaint, where things are so complete, so singular, that I can't imagine any other version. The film has a great eye for period detail, and it does a tremendous job of painting a terribly bleak portrait of what even the best life must have been like at that time. Because the world and the language feel authentic, it grounds even the most bizarre moments in the film in the real. And the film definitely gets bizarre in places, with sights that I will not shake any time soon. Part of what makes all of it so unsettling is that most of the cast is children. What Eggers asks of his young cast is truly demanding, and even most adults would have trouble playing it properly. There's a scene involving Caleb late in the film that is so perfectly played, both emotionally and technically, that I'm not sure how Eggers directed the scene. I'm not sure how you explain what you want in scenes like these to kids, but Eggers manages to create a sense of mood and dread that is so suffocating at times that it feels like we're watching something genuinely transgressive, something we should not be seeing.
Mark Korven's score, Jarin Blaschke's photography, Craig Lathrop's production design… all of it serves this disturbing vision, and I am haunted by the way the film builds to a conclusion that can be read many different ways, but that offers up images that are new and specific and profane. It's fascinating to learn that much of the dialogue in the film is taken from actual historical accounts of New England's long and awful relationship with “witchcraft”. There are issues of gender and family and faith all bubbling under the surface, but Eggers didn't make the film to grind an axe. Instead, by making this story so personal, so focused on this one family, he has created something that feels like it cuts deep, that gets past simple genre definitions to become something unique. There is a voice I will hear in a nightmare sometime soon, and I have Robert Eggers and his beautiful phantasm to thank.
“The Witch” has its public premiere at Sundance on January 27.