THE WITCH Movie Review
Utilizing atmospheric, spiritual, and family tension as the its driving source of conflict, instead of relying solely on the titular character, The Vvitch delivers psychological terror that avoids many of pitfalls of the horror genre. Although it drifts at points, The Vvitch is a strong reminder that although there is evil in the world, all it take is a minor push before we become a version of what we once feared.
True horror shows many forms: ghosts, ghosts, goblins, vampires, werewolves, and, yes, even witches. But there are far more things and ideas that strike fear in our hearts that can manifest themselves as grief, depression, loss, the feeling of being out of control, and the general sense of helplessness. What is scarier: fear of an unknown entity or fear of what you can see right in front of you, yet can do nothing to avoid? The Vvitch presents both to the viewer. It is entirely up to you to decide for yourself.
The story takes place in the seventeenth century and follows a Puritan family-father William, mother Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and boy/girl fraternal twins Jonas and Mercy-leaving their New England plantation due to a disagreement over religious beliefs and practices. The family travels and finds a plot of open land near the edge of a forest to begin their life free and new. All seems well for a matter of months, until a mysterious occurrence leads the family to deal with a sudden tragic event that shakes them to their core. With nowhere to turn, the suddenly fragmented family must learn to move on, last the oncoming harsh winter, evade the spell of a potential witch, and, simply, deal with each other to attempt to survive.
The Vvitch is not a simple, run of the mill horror movie, and should not be viewed or evaluated as such. There is depth much grander than what meets the eye that takes form in religious, spiritual, philosophical, and psychological tones and metaphors that can be lost on those who view the film on paper for what it is. Is there a witch? Yes, but she is far from the sole catalyst of fear and unrest, and focusing solely on her ruins the multitude of messages and levels of symbolism that encompass the story. No, the larger themes at play, which often take form in religious allegories regarding the Seven Deadly Sins, occur more so in the mind than in the physical realm and have a more unsettling effect than what we can see or touch right in front of us. The character of the witch herself may be terrifying in her own right, but maybe no more uncomfortable to a child confronting a controlling, semi-abusive parent who constantly dictates how they should behave, handle themselves, or generally under-appreciates them. They both represent different versions of fear, but one is something they live with everyday versus one that may appear only sparingly, if ever, in their lives.
To handle the task of a psychological horror which plays with the “less is more” style approach, a strong cast is needed and it is the performances that deliver on the dread promised in the marketing of the film. Anya Taylor-Joy leads the film as Thomasin, a borderline prepubescent girl and the eldest daughter of her family. Thomasin carries the burden of helping her family more than any other sibling and dealing with the constant scolding of her at times overbearing mother. Taylor-Joy’s ability to subtly portray what ends up being such an emotionally conflicted character going through massive amounts of change is the anchor of the story and holds the film together. Ralph Ineson plays the role of William, the family patriarch, a fiercely religious man who holds to honor and pride as the strongest roots to his personality. However, unlike matriarch Katherine, played gratingly well by Kate Dickie, William has a softer side to him that belies the rough exterior he wishes to exude. Dickie, to her credit, shows the emotional, motherly side that you would expect, but her portrayal of dislike and distrust of her own daughter is never far from her. Harvey Scrimshaw is also very good as Thomasin’s brother Caleb, showing both a youthful exuberance, but also vulnerability and a maturity occasionally beyond his years.
Beyond the performances, Robert Eggers does a fantastic job writing and directing the film in a way that captures the starkness of the landscape, the emotional turmoil within the family unit, and places the constant threat of the witch at bay just long enough to let the human element of the film continue to be the focal point. Much credit has to be given to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke for his work on The Vvitch as the landscape itself becomes as much of a character as the members of the family; representing the wild unknown that dwells within each of them as much as the witch dwells within it. The haunting score by Mark Korven further adds to the tension and despair and further rounds the film out.
The Vvitch has few problems, though it does fall into certain genre cliches in the third act that do feel out of place from earlier points in the film. The finale operates well as standard horror movie fare, but also looms with larger metaphorical messages about the greater idea of the sins each character carried with them and how they can come full circle based on their experiences changing their perception of reality, mortality, who they are, and what they will become. Perhaps some messaging will fly over the heads of certain viewers, but the film operates just as well if taken at surface level with the added layers there for those who choose to look for them. Although The Vvitch may lack the jump scares, excessive gore, and multiple monster scares of traditional horror films, or even the knockout performance like Essie Davis’s turn in 2014s The Babadook, but what it brings is an artistic, well-acted, thoughtful piece on how our own inner demons can be just as dangerous as the ones we fear may go bump in the night.
The Vvitch (The Witch) is written and directed by Robert Eggers and stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Harvey Scrimshaw.