‘Witch’ Taps into Paranoia, American Nationalism

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

While The Conjuring flaunted its beat-by-beat horror and It Follows divided many fans of the genre, something was watching from the dark, forgotten woods of this country’s cultural memory. It’s a subgenre sometimes overlooked in cinema, containing innate nuance. That gold mine of cinematic potential is the American gothic tale, and The Witch taps into it.

With The Witch, first-time writer-director Robert Eggers set out to craft a meticulously detailed period film predicated upon believability, accuracy and respect for the source material: hundreds of historical documents, both fictional and not, which he pored over for years leading up to filming. His work paid off: The Witch is a tense, suffocating account of isolation and fear in 17th-century New England that uses gothic tropes while subverting expectations for spectacular effect.

After being expelled from his plantation, devout Puritan father William (Ralph Ineson) ventures into the wilderness with his family to carve out a living among the foreboding trees that block further passage into the American continent. His purpose is simple: to live a humble life in awe of God. But The Witch is as much about doubt as it is about belief, and when the need to feed his children overcomes his desire to stay true to the Lord, his meager homestead becomes the site of mounting fear and corruption.

The disappearance of William’s youngest child adds fuel to the flames of his family’s downfall, and the family soon finds themselves teetering on the brink of a darkness as black as their prize goat. We see most of the story through the eyes of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), William’s eldest daughter, who is established early on as the most malleable in her faith, yet, ironically, the most steadfast in her morals. Her relationship with her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is an appropriately touching centerpiece for the film’s first two acts, ensuring that there’s an emotional core beyond the flowery — but suitable — period dialogue and drab, unfeeling landscape. The broken love between William and Katherine (Katie Dickie), his devoted but quick-to-accuse wife, is similarly textured, giving the audience sympathy for the kinds of characters usually ignored in these narratives.

Perhaps the most surprising part of The Witch is the way its story unfolds. For a film set in 1630 that prioritizes accuracy above flourish, it has a surprisingly fast-paced, accessible body with little to no padding over its 92-minute runtime. Every scene has meaning. The camera moves from character to character in a sensible fashion, setting up the cracks in their faith that will later lead to their undoing.

The acting in The Witch is superb across the board. Eggers’ directing experience prior to this film consisted, for the most part, of Shakespeare on stage, so it’s no wonder that he’s able to draw entrancing performances out of his ensemble. Game of Thrones alums Dickie and Ineson perform admirably, but it’s the brother and sister at the center of the story who really shine. Taylor-Joy — you’ll know her name soon enough, as she’s already been lined up for three films in the next year thanks to her work here — plays Thomasin with wide-eyed intelligence and a relatable, humble independence that immediately separate her from the rest. Scrimshaw does a great job making her brother a stoic Puritan boy, but it’s later on that he really brings it home in some fantastically unsettling scenes.

From the first close-up shot of Thomasin’s face to the wretched final frame, The Witch exists to embody the unique set of variables that American gothic stories bring to the table. Eggers is fully aware of the psychological state of the frontier. Without even the flag of an independent nation to wave for comfort, settlers found themselves at the edge of a vast forest in a land filled with uncertainty.

The perceived threat of native peoples by the white settlers notwithstanding — though it’s addressed subtly in the film — the real star of the show in Eggers’ burgeoning society is the crisis of masculinity exacerbated by witch-based paranoia. William is continually forced to question his ability to care for his family independent of the plantation’s comforts, and when he’s finally confronted about his ineptitude, he is unable to place the blame on himself. It’s no wonder that fear of the titular witch heightens. It is partly fear of the power of free-thinking women that drove the pilgrims to cry “witch,” but The Witch makes it clear that this paranoia wasn’t only a stifling of female power. For some, it was an opportunity to shatter the chains of Puritanism and claim a new sense of identity. That act of breaking free is Thomasin’s struggle, and where it ends is nothing short of bewitching.

With well-researched details and a strong cast, The Witch acts as proof that the folktales of old still have the power to scare us. In fact, the film’s weight speaks directly to the paranoia and prejudice still raging within our comparatively pubescent country, drawing sobering but important comparisons between the woods of a barely-settled New England and othering processes today. While Eggers doesn’t stress such points with undue commentary, The Witch speaks for itself as an artifact of the boundaries of faith, the repression of curiosity and the damning truths hidden in the dark. If that’s not true horror, nothing is.