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The Witch: Suffer the Little Children

This seventeenth-century horror film needs to be wiser, less proud of itself, and yes, it needs to be scarier.

A24 Films

The Witch is the sort of horror movie that gets a ton of praise for its dogged resistance to conventional scary movie tropes. An indie hit out of Sundance last year, The Witch is the type of film that’s a success at film festivals but tends to evaporate once released into the wild; what works in the relentless hustle of a festival can feel airless when introduced to the elements of regular human audiences. The Witch is wrapped up in its own views of religion, of sin, of feminine power, but more than anything else, it is wrapped up in itself.

Ralph Ineson plays William, the head of a family of seventeenth-century Puritans, who has been kicked out of his New England village because he doesn’t believe the community is sufficiently dedicated to The Lord. Out in the wilderness, his family is immediately stricken with woe: No crops will grow, the animals grow ill and mad, and his infant son is taken away by a creature in the woods that everyone wants to believe is a wolf but we immediately recognize as some sort of witch-type creature. (This abduction, coming in the first ten minutes, is the most grueling moment of the whole film. I’d urge new parents to stay away, trust me.) William’s wife is paralyzed with grief, the family’s other children grow increasingly unstable and, seriously, those farm animals are starting to look at everybody awfully funny. This is all filtered through the eyes of the oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is starting to “blossom as a woman” (the film’s words, not mine) in a way that is causing everyone else in the family problems, particularly her young brother. As more terrible things happen, the eye of suspicion for this Puritan family begins to fall on her. 

The movie is steeped in period language—come prepared to keep your thees and thous straight—and much has been made of how much work writer-director Robert Eggers put into making the film as accurate as possible, but it hasn’t made the film feel any more authentic. The Witch isn’t immersive in the way it needs to be; it’s obvious there’s a modern sensibility standing above these poor souls, judging them like the God they so desperately seek. The parents are seen as tormented but also cruel and vengeful in a way that’s easily mocked from the distance of 450 years; Eggers is much more interested in their suffering than their plight. The family begins to crumble as William starts to wonder if he is reliving the life of Job, and we are invited to revel in the family’s strife and even perhaps suspect William and his brood may have it coming to them a little. William is seen as a decent but deeply misguided man, and the movie briefly flirts with the notion that God is somehow punishing him. Except we know there’s a witch: We see her in the first five minutes of the movie, and the possibility of her reemergence is the central driver of tension the rest of the way. Something is legitimately tormenting this family, and it is not God. We should feel more sympathy for William than Eggers allows us to. Sure, he’s got some outdated views—he’s 500 years old— but there’s still a witch trying to kill his family, cut the guy a break.

After the initial horror of the baby’s abduction (I mean it, young parents, I’m not joking around here: stay home) the film avoids conventional scares for more than an hour, and while some may find this creates an enticingly moody atmosphere, I found it mostly dull—a filmmaker striving for significance through withholding. In a way, it’s sort of Puritan itself; Eggers wants a lot of credit for not providing you with what you’re expecting from a horror film, for refusing to grant you such base thrills, but then you look around and wonder why everyone’s supposed to be so compelled by all the butter churns. The film has an effectively creepy score that’s made more creepy by its modernness—the music is out of sorts with the setting in a way that jars and upsets—and it lets the sparseness of a New England winter do a lot of the work for it; you do feel throughout that you are in a place forsaken by God, and by everybody else. But the movie is so caught up in its period detail that long stretches go by to little effect. It’s rare you see a horror movie that lets creepy looks from goats and rabbits—to the extent that a goat or a rabbit can give you a creepy look—do so much heavy lifting.

The film does eventually build toward a fiery conclusion, a crescendo of madness that doesn’t particularly resolve anything but does give Eggers the big batshit moment that theoretically justifies the wait. I’m not sure I entirely understand what we’re supposed to take away from the ending, what it tells us about the forces conspiring against this family or what they did (or didn’t do) to put themselves in this position. It does tell me that Eggers put a lot of work into getting all the details right for this movie—there’s a closing credits message reminding us that much of the dialogue comes from actual seventeenth-century documents, as if that means anything—and that he believes he understands the world of these characters better than they understand it themselves. But the film still keeps us at a distance, more a cinematic exercise than an actual dive into the world of sin and guilt and pain that it attempts to evoke. Eggers has done an impressive job of painstakingly re-creating this world, but I’m not sure he has all that much to say about it. The Witch needs to be more urgent, it needs to be wiser, it needs to be less proud of itself and yeah, it needs to be scarier. But more than anything, it needs a little more air in it, a little more compassion for these poor bastards at its center. The characters in The Witch need protection from the malevolent forces conspiring against them, but it’s Eggers, not the witch or God, who they should be worried about.

Grade: C

 For a lively debate on the merits of The Witch, we recommend this episode of the Grierson & Leitch podcast:

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site