There are a thousand different ways to read and interpret this film: religious, feminist, historical, or, as the sub-title of the film flat-out says, just as a folk-tale. But, no matter how you come away from this film and what it makes you think about, it is one of the finest, tensest, most masterful films I’ve seen in years.
I’m not going to talk too much about the plot, because, really, the marketing folks have done an A+ job of not giving too much of the story away, which is commendable, to be sure, and I think going in fresh, experiencing everything director Robert Eggers throws at you, is to your best interest. But, I will say this: I’m drawn to films about isolation, especially when it deals with landscape (books, too, really)—how do we interact with, survive, in some instances, in these types of places? What does it do to us? Can we see the beauty of an un-tampered-with forest? Or is it bleak, frightening, a place to never set foot in?—and this film is a masterclass in dealing with these issues.
But more than that, this movie is deeply unsettling, not in a “horror” way (in fact, I’d be more comfortable calling this a period psychological thriller, rather than a horror film). Puritans are an interesting case study, to be sure, believing America was a gift of god—the Promised Land—and believing every bump, every owl’s hoot, was some demon come to test them (or worst). And that is, probably, how this movie achieves this level of unease, start to finish, that I can’t compare to any other film: we meet these fanatical puritans from the get-go, too fanatical, even, for their own community, and we understand then it’s an us-vs-them mentality consisting, literally, of this new world against them. It makes it easy to be in their shoes, then, narratively-speaking, and we’re on edge alongside them. You see the surrounding forests near their homestead, and at first, you think, my god, beautiful (because, really, the cinematography is gorgeous), but then, quite instantaneously, we feel dread the way they feel dread. It’s a genius bit of filmmaking in that way, a miraculous way to get us to care about these characters and to indoctrinate us to their plight.
In addition, there are a lot of very interesting questions this film doles out regarding our relationship to nature even now; we feel as if we can tame it but never quite can—something always happens to remind us that Mother Nature is, indeed, in charge.
Regardless, this is a beautiful film. I understand the need to market this as horror in order to get people in the seats, but I don’t think that’s correct here. This is a period piece, a piece about a family, their struggles with an oppressive religion that offers very little actual insight into the world, and how they learn to deal with this new landscape as it pushes back. There are a lot of exciting films coming out in 2016, to be sure, but I’m finding it hard to believe there’s going to be one as exciting, as well made, as The Witch.
My score: 5 out of 5 nefarious rabbits