In The Witch, out this week on DVD, writer/director Robert Eggers drops us into the 17th century and leaves us there. We spend our time with one family, whose patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) has been banished from a New England town for “prideful conceit.” William, whose sharp features and bushy beard recall Chester Brown’s visualization of a dour and angry Christ, brings his wife and four children (with a fifth on the way) to a bleak, arid-looking patch of land, surrounded by looming, frightful trees. This place is kin to the unfriendly, uninhabitable woods found in The Blair Witch Project and Antichrist. Nature itself conspires against William, killing his crops, rotting his corn.
Is there an actual witch in The Witch? For a long time, Eggers operates in darkness and ambiguity. These people fear God and also fear women (the women do, too, having internalized the gynophobia). Fear of witches is essentially fear of female wrath — and fear that one might have done something to incur that wrath, such as fearing a male god. The religious folk in The Witch trap themselves in misery, shame, terror. Everything can be blamed on Satan, but would Satan have been summoned if not for your impurity, your impiety? William and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) look agonized and spiritually crushed, especially after their oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes her baby brother to the outskirts of the woods and he disappears. Who did it? A witch? Satan, in the form of the family’s black goat, named Black Phillip?
What’s refreshing, and frightening, about The Witch is that Eggers allows no modern consciousness (scarcely any comic relief either) to intrude upon the anguish. We are not encouraged to feel superior to these antiquated people and their beliefs. We’re there with them. At times the movie is unnervingly intense and severe. I give it the highest marks as a cinematic inquiry into faith and fear, but even I have to admit breathing a sigh of relief when it was done with me. The filmmaking itself is harsh, Puritanical — we almost feel guilty for sitting there idle, when we could be milking a goat or doing something useful.
Eggers did years of research into folk tales and witchcraft, and the family’s house was built using the methods of 1630. Big whoop, you may say, but the verisimilitude pays off, and not in the showoffy manner of something like The Revenant. We believe in the people and, more to the point, in the ghastly space they occupy. Eggers was a production designer before turning to directing — The Witch is his feature debut after a couple of shorts based on “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Hansel and Gretel.” The atmosphere of dread and despair is immaculate. I’d say this is the strongest American debut expressing an utterly and stubbornly personal perspective almost entirely through image, sound and mood since Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.
That aside, is the movie “scary”? Not in the sense in which moviegoers usually mean “scary” — there’s little blood, no jump shocks. It is, however, disturbing and disquieting and many other words with the prefix “dis,” including “disgusting” at certain points, as when an apple makes an unexpected appearance, or when a witch smears herself with infant blood. Does she really, though? We return to the earlier question, is there a witch here? The literal horrors we see may not be quite so literal. As Anthony Lane suggested in The New Yorker, people who believe so devoutly — and so literally — in a god may be subject to a kind of collective hysteria or hallucination; thus the Salem terrors. Their imagination manifests as clearly-seen demons, phantasms, debaucheries. (In interviews, Eggers has also advised us not to ignore the detail of the rotting corn — i.e., ergot poisoning, to which some modern scholars have attributed the madness in Salem.) The intriguing suspicion also arises that the horrors are real, and that the family’s fear, not its sins, is what summons the blood and sulfur (as per Jaime Hernandez’s masterwork “Flies on the Ceiling”: “It’s not your sins but your guilt that allows me to come to you”). What The Witch does best of all is to whisk us back to a completely alien-to-us sensibility and the world that it interprets. The daylight is gray and chill, like the withheld love of a disappointed god, and the nights are as dark as the absence of their god.