There is a (excuse the pun) bewitching quality about The Witch, directed and written by Robert Eggers, that renders this horror film both deeply unsettling and starkly beautiful. Set soon after the English arrived and settled in America, and based on actual written accounts from that period, it focusses on a family’s struggle to make a home for themselves in the wilderness – but with a slight twist. There is an ominous presence in the woods nearby, one which they cannot understand or comprehend. The screenplay’s heavily religious themes, lush cinematography and unnerving, thumping score sustain the tension, which emerges less from overt scares and more from the sense of inevitable yet deferred dread that accumulates throughout the film.
In the opening scene William (Ralph Ineson) is being banished from a settlement over a dispute about his religious beliefs, and he is forced to leave with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children, the oldest of which are Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). They decide to resettle on the edge of a wood, but soon their crops begin to fail and the winter is fast approaching. Most terrifyingly though, their youngest child, a baby, inexplicably disappears, abducted and taken into the neighbouring woods. Their religious beliefs are challenged, bewilderment turns into paranoia, and the family eventually turns on each other and especially Thomasin, who is accused of being a witch.
What is most striking about the film is its cinematography and score, establishing an atmosphere that is alienating and incomprehensible. The overcast colour palette – muted greens, sobering greys, dull browns – instils a visually arresting mood of eeriness, which complements effectively with a heavy, percussion-laden score. And although there are several scenes that are jarring and shocking, most of the tension develops through a slow, sustained build, gestating in silences which always appear to gesture towards the inexplicable something else that will eventually come.
The performances are strong, especially from Ineson and Dickie as the two parents and Taylor-Joy as the locus of blame. Ineson’s grave, sonorous voice, and Dickie’s anxious, fretful demeanour, both convey a sense of haplessness and confusion, and Taylor-Joy summons a desperate, defiant strength in attempting to counter the accusations made of her. Together, they render the foreboding palpable. And ultimately, The Witch is unsettling because it aims not to answer questions or provide explanations, but to impart a lingering feeling of unease that remains unassuaged.
The Witch screened at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival.