Thank God for passion projects. A filmmaker spends years chasing funding and developing an idea with an obsessive attention to every detail. The search for producers and distributors yields time for extensive research, comprehensive casting searches and meticulous production design. Ironically, a filmmaker’s lack of professional good fortune can be a very good thing for an audience. When you actually breakthrough as a filmmaker, you may become a cog in a corporate wheel, cranking out motion pictures on a tight schedule when time means money. The Witch, the first full-length film from writer/director Robert Eggers, benefits handsomely from this dichotomy. Eggers spent years crafting the environment and backstory for this film, and it shows in every frame. Some festival darlings don’t live up to the hype. The Witch soundly proves any naysayers wrong.
The film opens in the 1630s, decades before the Salem Witch Trials. William, his wife and children are being banished from their Quaker community. Not because William is a non-believer, but because William may be too zealous in his beliefs. He gladly accepts his sentence and uses his farewell to belittle the weak faith of the townspeople. The family enters the woods to build their own home and grow their own food.
One day, their eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is supervising her infant brother when the baby vanishes without a trace. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the child was in fact taken by a witch. This is established in the first ten minutes of the film. The central conceit of the film is that only the audience knows there is an actual witch at work.
The Witch uses the fallout from supernatural occurrences to explore the ties that bind family members to one another. With each inexplicable event, William and his brood grow more and more distrusting of each other. The young twins like to talk to their pet goat, Black Phillip. Is it just a childish game? Or is there more to Black Phillip than meets the eye? Are family members being influenced by the unseen witch? Or are they simply people making irrational decisions when placed under considerable stress?
The Witch reaches the sublime heights of tension and suspense where the audience is manufacturing as much fear in their own minds as the film is providing on the screen. This is not your usual jump scare film where goosing the score with a sudden screech of violins makes viewers gasp. The Witch is an immersive form of horror that generates an unrelenting sense of dread and impending doom.
I marvel at films like Room and The Babadook where so much of the success of the experience rides on the shoulders of child actors. Not many directors would say, “I want to make a period piece set in 1630s New England with Old English dialogue and child actors.” It sounds like nothing short of professional suicide, a debacle in the making, especially for a debut feature. Instead, Eggers proves himself to be a masterful director of the youngest members of his cast. Every note of their performances rings true. Anya Taylor-Joy is a true find, and it doesn’t take a psychic to know that The Witch will launch her career into the stratosphere. Hopefully it will do the same for Robert Eggers. His passion project deserves to be rewarded.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.