The “horror” genre has always been an expansive genre that isn’t afraid to push boundaries. From the highly influential 1922 film, Nosferatu, to 2018’s critically acclaimed Hereditary, filmmakers have never been afraid to use whatever they can to induce a deep sense of fear and anxiety in their audience. Independent film distribution/production company A24 has been working to bring some of the best films to our screens since 2012. A24 typically brings more underground movies to life and works with many genres, including drama, horror, science fiction, comedy, noir, etc. A24 has gained a large following since its foundation. Several of their films are critically praised, such as The Lighthouse, Uncut Gems, A Ghost Story, Mid90s, Moonlight, Swiss Army Man, and the previously mentioned Hereditary. A24 has also brought us some of the best horror films of the decade, with one of my personal favorites being Robert Eggers 2015 full-length feature directorial and writing debut, The Witch.
Robert Eggers is a reasonably new name in the film industry, as he currently only has two films under his belt, those two being The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse, with a third film titled The Northman, presently in production. Robert Eggers specializes in horror, and his two current films are some of the most original, mind-bending experiences in the genre. Eggers’ debut The Witch is often overlooked in the film world, but the film perfects the art of capturing anxiety and inducing fear into an audience.
The Witch takes place in New England during the colonization of North America and revolves around a Puritan family forced out of their colony due to differing religious opinions. The family of seven travel far into the wilderness and settle in a field surrounded by vast forests, where they begin their new lives. The film then transitions to a regular day of work for the family and shows the eldest daughter, Thomasin, playing with her newborn brother, Samuel. After playing Peek a boo with her brother for several minutes, Thomasin uncovers her eyes one final time to see that her infant brother has vanished. The family then begins to suspect a supernatural force subsiding in the deep woods. The incident creates a tension between the family, particularly between parents William and Katherine and Thomasin, that is captured with absolute perfection by Eggers. The Witch is a film that works on all levels, regarding the storytelling and technical/cinematic aspects, and in my eyes, will forever be a cinematic and artistic masterpiece.
One part of this film that is done well is the characters. One of the essential elements of a great story (arguably THE most important) is the characters. If the characters in a film, book, video game, comic, etc., aren’t well written, the whole story tends to fall apart. Here, the characters are so full of life (albeit miserable) and feel like real people. The two significant factors that go into the characterization are the actors and Eggers himself, and both of these factors work together phenomenally. To start with the actors, each actor gives off some of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a film, with Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin) and Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb) being the two stood out. Every actor portrays their character with complete honesty and with a substantial amount of energy, but to me, Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw were the two that took absolute control of the screen. Scrimshaw might be one of the best child actors I’ve ever seen. His portrayal of the eldest son Caleb is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking, as he’s a kind and gentle child caught in the middle of a terrorizing situation, and seeing him struggle to support his family as it crumbles is suffering to the viewer. Being the lead character, Thomasin, Taylor-Joy displays the horror, disillusionment, and anxiety that surround the whole family with complete perfection. Thomasin is a teenage girl who desires a different life from her parents, and this conflict creates an even bigger tension between her and her family. Every shot of her reflects what the family is going through and what effect it actually has on her. As the tension and anxiety within the family escalate, so does the conflict between Thomasin and her family. Taylor-Joy captures the intensity of her character with a great amount of energy as the conditions worsen for the family, and it’s a performance that is truly jaw-dropping. Every time I watched this film, I could tell that Eggers did an amazing job instructing the actors on exactly what he wanted from them, as no actor in The Witch holds back at all.
The direction that Eggers took with the writing and presentation in this film is some of the most unique and original I’ve ever seen. Every shot adds to the eerie and suspenseful tone that the whole film builds, and it reflects the emotions that the characters are experiencing. Many of the shots throughout the beginning feature landscape shots of the forest with the sky resting above. While it may seem fairly insignificant, Eggers uses these shots to build eeriness and suspense around the forest, letting the audience know that the forest will play a major role in the tension that builds within the family. Eggers also layers dissonant music featuring abrasive violins and a haunting female choir to capture the dark nature of the forest. Eggers frames his shots with the characters in a way that makes them feel intimate and intense. The Witch features many close up shots on characters when Eggers wants to emphasize a certain character and their current feelings. Something else that’s really done well with the cinematography is the importance of setting in every scene. Eggers does not show you anything that he doesn’t need to show you, whether the shot’s focal point is on the characters or some type of landscape/setting, he displays only what he wants the viewer to see. This detail makes the whole film a lot more cohesive, as scenes are able to progress more fluidly with the focus of each shot being consistently conveyed. Throughout the film, there’s a noticeable change in perspective when the characters venture into the woods, with the shots becoming a lot more distant from the characters. Eggers utilizes the power of perspective to showcase certain plot points from a different point of view, and in turn adds a new dynamic to the film; it makes the viewer realize that they’re seeing these characters from the perspective of the witch and the entire forest. This small detail makes the entire forest seem alive, it makes the forest really seem like a real threat, as this is the point when the characters start to lose control over themselves. The direction Eggers took with the writing was a really bold choice, as the characters speak in a colonial dialect, making extensive use of words such as “thy” or “thou.” Admittingly, this can make it a bit more difficult to follow the dialogue, but it also adds to the setting, making it feel like these characters are really in the time period they’re in. One more element that is done extremely well is the soundtrack to the film. The music featured are some of the most haunting and nightmarish compositions I’ve ever heard. The music is placed really well, and when it’s used it never fails to add an unsettling amount of eeriness and darkness to the given scene and exemplifies the haunting tone throughout the film. In my opinion, The Witch features some of the best stylistic presentation and direction from any director or writer I’ve ever seen, and Eggers manages to create something that is uniquely his own.
Thematically, The Witch covers fascinating topics revolving around Christianity and religion as a whole. Faith drives the narrative and the family’s actions, as the entire reason they were banished from their original home was because of their religious differences with the town. What exactly religion means to each character is explored throughout the film, and impacts how the characters function with one another. The conflict within the family is caused mainly by what each member believes to be sin, and how they treat each other is determined by their faith in God and the sins they’ve committed. Eggers simultaneously presents religion’s impact, ironically, as the family gets more and more desperate. Still, they keep being ignored by God, and the conditions of the forest and their home continue to worsen. Eggers presents the audience with many questions on how religion impacts people’s functionality and unity and how religion competes with nature and makes the audience think for themselves on the role religion plays in society.
Overall, The Witch is a fantastic film. It’s near flawlessly crafted, it features terrific performances, and explores religion and human nature in a thematic sense that demands the audience to engage in questions balancing nature and religion. The Witch is a 21st century masterpiece in my opinion, and I recommend this to anyone that loves horror films or has a deep appreciation for fantastic filmmaking.
“Would thous’t like to live deliciously?”
-Black Phillip (The Witch)