Applying genre to a work of fiction can be a very useful tool. The most basic genres of comedy and drama, the foundations of theater and film, let us know at the very least if what we’re going to see has a lighthearted or serious tone. Go a little farther into science fiction, or romance, or horror and we have an even clearer picture of the tone of what we are about to see. Sometimes. Sometimes assigning a genre to a piece of fiction just muddies the waters, and The Witch is one of those cases.
On its surface, The Witch is a horror film about a Puritan family in the early 1600’s (very shortly after Europeans began settling the North American continent) trying to survive in the wilderness after leaving their colony and being beset upon by the witch who lives in the nearby wood. The storyline focuses much more on familial relations and in particular their Puritan customs and faith. Supernatural forces drive the narrative, but once they set things in motion, they stay out of the way for long periods and let the prejudices and preconceptions of the family (who don’t appear to have a last name) provide the conflict.
Robert Eggers is both the writer and director of The Witch. The writing on display is good, but tries to be too authentic to the period. Eggers actually used the first-hand descriptions of witches from trials of the era when writing his dialogue, but rather than immersing the viewer even more into the period, it actually serves as a bit of a distraction. The dialogue not taken directly from trial notes does not have the same depth of language as that which is, and this fact does call attention to itself, plus having to do a quick translation in your head for much of what the characters just said can also break your immersion in the story.
The acting on display here is also strong for the most part, but can be a little hit or miss. Both Ralph Ineson as William the father of the clan and Anya Taylor-Joy as their eldest daughter Thomasin give excellent performances. Kate Dickie, the mother of the family, gives a somewhat more uneven performance, however, prone to occasional overacting when compared to most everything else in the rest of the film. The other major characters are the younger children in the family, and the performances given by them is what you would expect from child actors who have a very proficient director overseeing them.
That directing is the true outstanding element in the film’s overall make up. While the script is good, but flawed, and the same with the acting, the direction has just the touch it needs to turn this story into a cohesive whole that emphasizes its strengths and minimizes its weaknesses. The Witch could, in fact, be a text book study on how the more imperceptible aspects of filmmaking can have a strong impact on the story, and how the director is very much part stage magician focusing our attention right where it’s wanted.
The Witch is a more creepy than scary or gory horror film, and it can be a bit uneven in its overall quality, but if you are in the mood for something cerebral that can give you the wiggins in a big way you could do far worse.
Rating: 6.2 out of 10