TIFF 2015: The Witch

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Set in 17th-century New England, Robert Eggers’ The Witch tells the haunting tale of a family who is exiled from their village and forced to live on the outskirts of a dense forest. When William (Ralph Ineson) refuses to acknowledge the rules of the town, specifically the words of those who he considers false prophets, he gladly accepts the banishment of himself, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children. Though unsure of where they will settle next, William is confident that this is all part of the path that God has laid out for them. Setting up their new dwelling near an ominous forest, the hard working family strive to make the best of their situation.

Things begin to take a dark turn for the clan when the baby of the family disappears without a trace while under the eldest daughter’s, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), watch. Did an unknown force from the woods take the child? Was it a wolf? Is this some sort of punishment God is inflicting for the family’s sins? Immediately enduring the wrath of her mother’s distrusting eyes, Thomasin struggles to prove her innocence in a household where she has few supporters. Her father is not sure of what to believe, and can only advise her to pray even harder than she currently does. Her twin siblings, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), who seem to have an unhealthy bond with one of the family’s livestock, a sheep named Black Phillip, believe she is an evil witch that has placed a curse on the family. The only one who seems to be on Thomasin’s side is her middle brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), but he has his own problems now that puberty is starting to set in.

As their situation in exile begins to become dire, they do not have enough food to last them through the winter, tensions within the family heighten. Soon mysterious things begin happening with Thomasin further carrying the brunt of the blame. However, when a trip into the woods leaves Caleb with an unexplainable illness, and the family descends into paranoia, it is only a matter of time before the true nature of the evil reveals itself to the clan.

The Witch finds Robert Eggers crafting a truly special horror film. Similar to The Shining and The Blair Witch Project before it, the film uses isolation the characters endure to evoke chills in the viewer’s mind long before the visual terrors begin. The slow burn build up allows Eggers to really draw out the complex dynamics of a family unaware of just how much danger they are in. Paying great attention to the detailed look of the era, and the numerous folklores that spawned from it, The Witch makes the viewer uncomfortable in even the most mundane scenes. This is a film where the atmosphere and landscape are just as important, if not more so, to the terror as the performances.

Giving a star-making turn as Thomasin, Anya Taylor-Joy is a revelation. She carries the fire of a rebellious teenage, but the vulnerability of a girl who ultimately must adhere to her family’s misguided wishes. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie are equally strong as parents whose grief and pride are the catalyst for their hysterical downward spiral. The paranoia and suspicion that erode William and Katherine is felt by the audience as well. The strong work by the cast adds to the overall psychological terror the film breeds. It also allows Eggers to create a truly haunting film without having to constantly resort to traditional jump scares.

Eerily chilling, and destined to become a classic in the genre, The Witch will make you think twice about taking a stroll in the woods.