A family living in 17th-century New England turns on one another after being forced from the safety of their Puritan community, which results in crop failure and threatening symbolism-laden livestock in this atmospheric thriller.
Amidst barren trees, dry cornhusks, empty traps, and seemingly never-ending dusk, a family settles on the edge of an impenetrable, ominous wood. Heartbreak, hunger, misfortune, lies, and accusations soon follow.
Shot in muted sepia, The Witch is a beautifully photographed, slowly-paced, dialogue-heavy film, much of which comes from period texts about witchcraft. A hushed cello score, and sporadic, discordant choral work creates an unsettling atmosphere throughout. Spartan, candlelit interiors, convincing period costumes, and whispers of an occult force surrounding the failing homestead generate an overall atmosphere of paranoia, repression, and a looming, inescapable darkness.
Like the pious catechism of its storyline, The Witch is an austere folktale, with few jump scares. It's a film of slowly building tension, with symbolism as thick as the barrow-like witch's house of tangled tree roots lying in wait in the center of the forest. A threatening hare, an aggressive goat, a forest bonfire. The ineffective woodcutter father, stripped to the waist by his oldest daughter. Mother's milk. A raven. An apple. The colluding younger twins, and the older children in the throes of adolescence, pitted against one another. All have sinister undertones, enriching a tale of survival and familial drama.
While some could argue that little happens in The Witch, there's much under the surface, particularly if viewed from a feminist standpoint and compared against Puritan values of the time. And let's not forget the role corn smut could be seen as playing, which has properties similar to ergot, argued as contributing to the tragedy and hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials.
I've seen several criticism of The Witch, pointing out how it 'isn't scary'. I have to agree, The Witch isn't scary. It's a film that doesn't illicit screams, but forces the audience into garments of uncomfortable sackcloth, a feeling which lingers far after its viewing.