It’s 1630. A family is exiled from its village in colonial Massachusetts. They set out into the frontier and find a place to build a home and a farm. As time passes, things are tough but they seem to survive. Then, one day, the family’s eldest child, Thomasin, is playing peekaboo with her baby brother, Sam, and at one point when she opens her eyes, Sam has disappeared. So begins The Witch, the 2015 film directed by Robert Eggers.
You’re probably familiar with that particular scene if you’d come across the trailer at one point or another (aside: this film is distributed by A24, whose trailers are some of the best out there), and that, followed by a number of scenes that showed the chaos that the family descends into, made me put this on my watchlist on Netflix. Having read and taught Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as well as watched the film adaptation starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, I can tell you that I like a good colonial witch story. But unilke The Crucible, which is grounded in reality, The Witch does not mince words that there is something supernatural going on.
I won’t go into too many details about the plot beyond the opening complications except to say that this is a story about a family being haunted, one or more people being possessed, and the ways that dark and evil spirits can corrupt the innocent. What makes it stand out against, the umpteenth nudity, gore, and jump scare fest that we see from this genre is that Eggers shows us the supernatural very sparingly and takes his time to develop the tensions between the characters. Thomasin spends much of the film feeling the guilt over the disappearance of her baby brother and bearing the brunt of her mother’s grief, while her brother Caleb struggles with what seems to be his oncoming adolescence and what it will mean for him to be a grown man and his relationship with his father. Meanwhile, twin siblings Jonas and Mercy are mischievous and spiteful and may or may not be talking to a demon via their goat.
The movie’s success really rests on the performances of these child actors, and it does succeed. The actors playing twins make the characters seem enough like annoying little kids and don’t tip over into that creepy, Village of the Damned-type of performance; Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as Thomasin carries the movie because it seems that even she doubts if she is doing something wrong or is possessed or something despite us seeing all of her actions. Plus, the examples of corruption or possession are played with nuance and actively eschew some cheap Linda Blair ripoff.
You’ve got to be able to handle harm to children, some gore (there’s animals that are shown pretty graphically disembowled at one point), and a tense creepiness if you’re going to watch The Witch. If you can and haven’t seen it yet, add it to your streaming queue right away.
Watch or Skip?