“A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.” — IMDb
Oh my freaking god, this movie. I’ve seen it twice now and I’m sure there will be more views in the future. It’s just… so perfect — a masterpiece, really — and the fact that it is director Robert Eggers’ feature film debut makes it even more impressive. The mood, the choice of actors, the historical accuracy, the sort of discordant and frantic music, the tension, the character development, the slow build of a more psychological horror, the setting… they just nailed every aspect. This is a long one, folks, because while I may not have a single freaking complaint about this movie, there is SO MUCH I LOVE AND I NEED TO TALK ABOUT IT.
The film takes place in 17th century New England and begins with the family — patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) — being banished from their town due to a difference in interpretation of the New Testament. They build a farm by the edge of the woods, where Katherine gives birth to their fifth child, Samuel. When he goes missing, it is just the beginning of the family’s descent into all kinds of despair and anguish.
** SPOILERS! **
The swiftness with which this movie delivers a feeling of all-encompassing hopelessness and isolation — starting just minutes in as we watch Thomasin numbly stare as their wagon heads off towards the woods, away from the town she calls home and from civilization as a whole — is intense. It almost doesn’t matter what happens after that point — you feel the frustration contrasting with this stoic, stubborn determination immediately.
I was actually impressed that they didn’t film on location in New England (due to tax incentives they opted for Canada), but the time Eggers put into finding a suitable location payed off because I easily believed it. The combination of the brilliant soundtrack (done by Mark Korven), the editing, and the cinematography made an otherwise benign forest truly appear ominous, evil even at a distance, which I thought was impressive. I think it can be easy to make woods feel creepy while you’re surrounded by them, but to give the impression that there’s something sinister hiding within them… awesome.
They did a great job at keeping the witch herself very subtle — she’s scary more for what we don’t see than what we do. But the glimpses you DO get are terrifying.
After Samuel disappears, Katherine’s grief is overwhelming. I feel like so often in movies when a child dies or goes missing, the grief is sort of glossed over — it’s implied. But the grief you feel from Katherine absolutely smothers you. It’s raw and unapologetic.
The film was shot entirely with natural light and damn, it shows. The outdoor shots manage to all be in this perfect, cloudy day light, and the indoor shots lit only by candles are just stunning. All of the indoor shots, really, are beautiful, and they did an amazing job at making the house feel extremely claustrophobic rather than cozy (which cinematographer Jarin Blaschke contributes to the particular aspect ratio used while filming).
It’s an extremely religious movie but not in a way that offers any form of comfort or warmth. It’s more about doing everything in your power to avoid God’s punishment rather than to receive his mercy. There’s a devoutness, a fierceness, a terrified tightrope walking of self-sacrifice. And as much as it’s about religion, it’s also about feminism — the quickness to cast evil onto something you don’t understand (or something you deem more powerful than it should be). Of course, in the time that this movie took place, women were accused of being witches for the most mundane of offenses — challenging societal norms, having colored skin, or even just being poor — so it’s no surprise that Thomasin was quick to be accused by even her own mother, a strong woman in her own right though that power may have been misplaced.
One of my favorite scenes, morbidly enough, is when Caleb dies after disappearing into the woods himself and reappearing inexplicably, naked and very ill. It’s impressive enough when an adult can put on a convincing show of death in a movie, but when a 14-year-old does it you take notice. But just the sense of their world crashing in around them — first Samuel and now Caleb — and Katherine’s hysteria paired with Caleb’s intense visions is… wild. You’re just staring wide-eyed watching the entire scene. And then it follows up with what is probably the most heart-wrenching scene in the whole film — one of the most heart-wrenching I’ve ever seen — with first a wide shot of Katherine and William burying Caleb, and then Katherine climbing into the grave to hold him one last time. Ooof.
William, I think, is one of the most complex characters in the film. He is desperate and mad with conviction but I believe truly trying to help his family the best he’s able to. He, too, is like the God they worship — a cold hand on your shoulder reminding you to stay the course, a fierce reminder hissed in your ear.
Ultimately, what I think is the best feat of all, is that this film makes no claim to whether it is reality or delusion. There’s a brief mention of rot on the corn — so quick you’d likely miss it — and some types of rot can produce hallucinations if consumed. Are we simply seeing the fungus-induced visions of a struggling family, or something more visceral? We see Caleb being tempted to gaze at his sister’s chest as her shift dips low… is his temptation into the beautiful witch’s cabin genuine, or simply a deeper metaphor for being drawn into evil? And Thomasin’s final departure, her willingness to “live deliciously”… does she actually float above the fire with the other witches, or is she simply choosing a life less rigid? We’ll never know, and THAT is freaking brilliant.
Rating: 9/10 | Director: Robert Eggers | Writer: Robert Eggers | Music: Mark Korven | Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke | Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson