The true horror in THE WITCH does not lie in its supernatural underpinnings. Rather this dour psychological thriller plumbs the depths of madness that human nature invites upon itself with a closed mind and a conviction of righteousness. Set in a New World colony in the early 17th century, it is an incisive deconstruction of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions told in the bleached grays and browns that echo the bleak worldview of its pious protagonists.
They have been banished from the relative comfort of their backwoods colony because patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson) has devised a theology that even his fellow Puritans find too harsh. Refusing to buckle under to the town’s leaders, Will and his family have eked out a precarious living on the edge of a dark and creepy woods, with William convinced that the Lord has brought them low in order to show them His grace and to make them more worthy of salvation. The worse their situation becomes, the more convinced he is that he has done the right thing for him, his family, and their immortal souls. If this is not the Devil’s playground, it is, at the very least, that of his metaphorical counterpart.
The isolation takes its toll. With no respite from the crushingly harsh efforts to survive, and the constant reminder from William about the reality of Hell as their final destination, neuroses find purchase. Elder son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) has begun to notice that his older sister, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is leaving her childhood behind. His confusion about his troubling feelings, and the way he can’t stop himself from fixing his eyes on her burgeoning bosom, add fuel to his formal catechism his father leads in which the boy affirms his sinful state brought on by Adam’s fall by way of Eve. His father reinforces the lesson, his face a perfect study of tender melancholy that he must tell his son this truth for his own good. As for Thomasin, she is convinced a fiery afterlife awaits her because she is impatient with her twin younger siblings, and resents that her mother (Kate Dickie) does not love her. That last becomes even more problematical when she is tasked with watching over her newborn brother, who disappears into the woods during a game of peek-a-boo. Her prayers, as her close-up fills the screen contrasted with the deep shadows surrounding her luminous, angelic face and beseeching eyes, are painful to watch because of her absolute, fearful conviction that what we know as the quirks of youth are to her the proof of her hopeless spiritual corruption.
Irony manifests as the desperation for salvation is what leads them all into a state of spiritual damnation even before the misfortunes begin. Religious convictions that fail to guarantee heaven even to the most devout have left them with nothing but despair. The conversations, using the flowery language of the time, are rife with growing resentment and self-recrimination, creating an escalating tension at odds with the genuine affection between husband and wife, parents and children. The claustrophobia Thomasin feels being trapped in a family that comes to regard her with more and more suspicion about what happened to the baby, is far more terrifying that the quick glimpses of the witch in the woods. Or is it what the family imagines the witch to be? And is it only their growing sense of foreboding that makes the unusually large brown rabbit, which seems to be everywhere, look so sinister. Certainly this is no cuddly bunny, but rather the cruel-looking, prominently clawed lagomorph of Durer’s portraiture, staring back at the increasingly hysterical humans with an imperious eye and a disquietingly imperious demeanor. If nothing else, THE WITCH has made rabbits a new icon of evil.
THE WITCH creates an exquisite sense of horror by conjuring up a time and place where real danger lurked everywhere and life was fragile. Yet, there is also a sense of uncomfortable immediacy in the way loved ones can so completely turn on one another and themselves in times of trouble, clinging to doctrine instead of compassion and the love preached so fervently along with the hellfire, but perverted in meaning.