Review: 'The Witch' Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, And Kate Dickie

NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The Witch opens on February 19th. 

There's a reason why the Salem witch trials remain such a frequent touchstone in the horror genre; religious paranoia and hysteria is terrifying in its resonance. While Robert Eggers' directorial debut The Witch  is set some years prior to the trials themselves, it expertly uses genre tropes and ancient folklore to create an ominously detailed backdrop upon which those future horrors will be committed.

Set in 17th century New England, the film is largely set on the wooded outskirts of a Puritan village where William (Ralph Ineson) and his family have been banished . The reasons for it are kept a tantalizing mystery, but the religious schism between him and the church is clear.  Building a life in the blight-ravaged farmland proves more than a typical hardship. Something, possibly supernatural,  is amiss that defies the bounds of common logic. William uses scripture as strength to persevere but his harsh wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) is spiraling slowly into madness. Full blown panic ensues when the youngest son Samuel vanishes while in the care of eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Whispers of a terrible witch living in the woods don't take long to be confirmed as we see the child's bloody and disturbing fate.

While Katherine makes Thomasin the target of her rage, the family's situation grows more dire, with Eggers piling on threats both real and imagined to keep them and us off balance. Their strong, brave son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), nearing the age of sexual desire, encounters a beautiful woman who is not as she seems. Between his sudden, deathly illness, the foreboding cries of witchcraft by twin siblings Jonas and Mercy, plus the worsening living conditions it becomes a test of their faith against the evil right in front of their eyes. As the family begins to turn on one another, crumbling that foundation by which faith takes root, Eggers ratchets up the tension more while piling up the body count. With its use of religious imagery and paranormal thrills, plus the icy chill of Jarin Blaschke's cinematography, it combines some of the best aspects of The Crucible and The Exorcist while a tense musical score always keeps you on edge.

Bringing it all together is the strength of the performances, most notably Taylor-Joy as the blossoming but tormented Thomasin. Dickie brings a similar mental fragility as she did as Lysa Arryn on HBO's Game of Thrones, and chances are those who follow that show will feel the same about her character here. Eggers remains ambiguous throughout until a questionable conclusion that threatens to be a little too on-the-nose, butThe Witch remains a frightening look at what happens when one's unshakable faith collides with a frightening reality.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5