Something lurks under the surface of ‘The Witch’

Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Witch." A24 via Tribune News Service

Somewhere at the crossroads of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jonathan Glazer lies “The Witch” (2015), a New England horror film released on Feb. 19 that broods as much as it scares. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Robert Eggers, the movie is riddled with the usual tropes of religious anxiety and things that go bump in the night but manages to avoid being formulaic by casting these old standbys in a new light and shifting the lens through which they’re presented. Although the film may leave hardcore horror fans wanting more, “The Witch” makes a compelling case for a contradictory-sounding subgenre: accessible art-horror.

The film, which originally premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, secures its art-horror status through beautifully crafted scenes that work to reflect on the destructive aspects of unwavering faith, patriarchy and guilt. It follows the “New England folktale” of a Puritan family that is exiled from its plantation when the father, William, played by Ralph Ineson, is charged with heresy. Even as they try to live piously, the members of the family face tragedy at the hands of the darkness that lurks in the woods, and all the ties that bind their lives in isolation begin to break down before their eyes.

Although “Game of Thrones”(2011 – present) actress Kate Dickie brings an essential severity to the grief-addled mother Katherine, the true heart of the movie is daughter Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Much like the titular character of Stephen King’s “Carrie” (1974), Thomasin is coming of age just as the religious fanaticism of her parents is reaching a tipping point. Her parents respond to her burgeoning womanhood and power negatively, deciding they must dismantle it through oppression and guilt. She and her siblings, including next-eldest Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), are as clueless in the ways of life as the students in “Spring Awakening” (1891) and must rely on scripture and the words of their parents to survive. Even in their severity, however, William and Katherine aren’t caricatures of the deeply religious but oftentimes sympathetic portraits of real, flawed people acting on faith and fear. “The Witch” does not mock them even as they accuse their daughter of the unthinkable but grants them a desperate and grim humanity.

Much of the magic in “The Witch” comes in the form of Anya Taylor-Joy, the film’s young lead. Taylor-Joy brings an unblinking, saucer-eyed gaze and purity to the role of the persecuted woman but doesn’t allow Thomasin to simply become the all-suffering bearer of meaning for a statement on patriarchal power and religious oppression. The actress instead grants the character a strength and agency that makes her entirely compelling as an individual. Taylor-Joy’s otherworldly looks, while important to the aesthetics of the film and the crafting of the character, only work to elevate the effects of an incredibly strong performance. It is so central to the mission of “The Witch” that the audience care deeply for Thomasin by the movie’s final, unforgettable shot that it would be criminal to underplay the value of Taylor-Joy’s active role in evoking sympathy.

Visually, the film is sparse and shadowed, reminiscent of Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre” (2011) in its commitment to tone and restraint. Gore is employed judiciously, creating just enough unease to contribute to the anxiety that builds throughout the film. Creeping violins are used similarly, ratcheting up moments of tension, but staying silent for long stretches of the film. The overall effect is one of restriction, mimicking the patriarchal, Puritanical ways of the family at odds with the unruly, indulgent and satanically “female” ways of the woods.

In the wake of breakout indie horror hits like “The Babadook” (2014) and “It Follows” (2015), the alternative methods and message of “The Witch” fall in step with the reclamation of “scary movies” from the slasher flicks and torture porn that have dominated the scene for the past two decades. It most closely shares horror DNA with Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” (2013), an atmospheric science fiction exploration of female power and human agency led by Scarlett Johansson. Although both films focus on a cultural and societal fear of women’s sexuality, “The Witch” is less experimental and more closely follows a clear narrative, making it more accessible for audiences despite its use of period-appropriate language in the script.

With its restraint and unease, “The Witch” is not a perfect horror film, but it is so admirable and unique in its art-horror exploration that it justifies a viewing from genre fans and casual moviegoers alike, if only for Thomasin’s inevitable and immensely satisfying revelation.


Summary

"The Witch," the art-horror directorial debut from Robert Eggers, provides mounting dread and thoughtful meditation on patriarchal power and religious obsession more than it does jump scares.

4 stars
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