Robert Eggers film opens in New England around 1630 or so. A family banished from the primary settlement (referred to as the plantation) strikes out into the wilderness and settles just at the edge of a deep forest. Devout to depth of pride, William and his wife and five children trust in the lord to protect them even as their crops fail and they cannot trap any game. When the eldest daughter Thomasin loses the infant while playing peek a boo the family is at a loss for an explanation. William wants to believe it is a wolf, but Katherine his wife, spurred on by the youngest children, twins, suspect witchcraft, with Thomasin the assumed guilty party.
THE WITCH is that rare film that is able to capture a time period perfectly, allowing for complete immersion. The Cabin In The Woods setting is just as effective in this period and with a family and of course forces them to face their demons alone. The dialogue and really dialect is amazing, as is the detail to which this family’s piousness is expressed. However, it is that rendering that keeps the film from being a true gem. Yes it gets awfully creepy and the scares are well executed. The cast of mostly new faces (Kate Dickie of Game of Thrones plays Katherine) carries a difficult script and really fill these empty woods with life. But when it comes down to it THE WITCH remains a period piece, with very little to say to our modern world. In fact, if the film had been made in 1630 (go with me a moment), it could very easily be accused of being religious propaganda. The entire message of the film seems to be ‘repent your sins and return to the lord.’
As far as themes go, that just doesn’t play for me today. Drawn from period writings as it is, there may have been no other possibility but I longed for a counter perspective. I needed something that could be applied to us today, some commentary the film wanted to make. Devoid of that, the film just plays as are very well-designed and crafted horror film, not bad at all, but with little more to add to the discussion than latest Saw installment.
That being said, The Witch is the strongest film I’ve seen yet at this year’s Sundance. Be sure to follow me on twitter @bearsfonte for my film by film reaction of this year’s festival.