The Witch is one of those rare films that makes beautiful use of the color black. Director Robert Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke capture its fluidity and menace. All the neutral palettes at the center of the frame are beholden to the recurring darkness, and everything else the eye cannot see.
Costume and production designs reflect the wintry tones of hemlock and white pine trees shivering in the background. And the lighting -- both interior and exterior -- is cloaked in a state of perpetual dusk. Each scene holds an immanence: when the burnt out candles exude only smoke, something unknown and invisible will arrive by nightfall.
The opening scene is set in a court of law. A man on trial for his religious views is seen from behind: we can hear his impassioned testimony, but his face is hidden. The silent camera speaks volumes in this establishing shot. The point of view belongs to the man’s wife Katherine and their children as they watch uneasily from the gallery. After the verdict is rendered, he is cast out of the community. Without questioning his authority, his family follows him into the wilderness. Welcome to the American colonies circa 1630 and its entrenched patriarchy.
Eggers, recently in town for an Alamo Drafthouse screening of The Witch, his first feature film, explained the staunch behavior of William, the father, “Basically there were people like Roger Williams who came over here. He was such an austere Puritan that he kept getting kicked out of these communities because he was holier than them. William is the kind of guy who would say you've got the cross of St. George on the flag. That’s idol worship. That’s blasphemy. Take that down.”
Every unfortunate plot turn that follows stems from William’s severe religiosity and his inability to compromise his beliefs, even if it means imperiling his family by moving them outside of the colony’s high, protective walls. While zealots like William still populate America today, I asked Eggers, who was born and raised in New Hampshire, about the challenges of creating a believable film set in 17th-century New England. “This has to be my childhood memory of the day that I talked to my father in the corn field and what he smelled like and what the mist was like on the corn. That level of specificity needs to go into it. It's not enough for the design to be good and the shot to be good and the light to be natural light or whatever. If we're not treating that material with that kind of personal connection, then we can't hope to transport an audience,” he says.
In addition to drawing from his sense memories, Eggers wrote and researched the era for several years before going into production. After filming the video short Hansel and Gretel in 2007, he decided to explore the origin myths surrounding what it meant to be a witch. “Today an evil witch is like a plastic Halloween decoration that doesn’t mean much to anyone. In the 17th century, an evil witch was a real primal, horrible, terrifying thing that every single person knew exactly what it meant,” he says.
What it means in the first dozen minutes of the film is the disappearance of William and Katherine’s newborn son. Eggers felt audiences needed to understand the stakes right away. "This is what a witch is capable of,” he says.
Because their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is minding the baby when he goes kidnapped, the family begins to suspect her of wrongdoing. The Witch immediately creates suspense; we, the audience, know Thomasin is not to blame.
The Witch should establish Taylor-Joy as an actress to watch the same way Winter’s Bone (2010) did for Jennifer Lawrence. Eggers’s lens effectively annunciates her. “You want to know what she is thinking but you don’t. She can be telling you what she's thinking and you're still trying to get in there, which was really crucial for the character. She delivered the dialogue with the intonations that I heard as I wrote it,” he says.
He may have found his muse in Taylor-Joy but she isn’t just a source of inspiration. The actress creates her character before our eyes. In Thomasin, she instinctually resists the family’s scapegoating by slowly tapping into a set of inner resources. The actress fuses the uncertainty of Thomasin's life at the forest's edge with her own adolescent vulnerability.
What happens to the stolen child, the family and Thomasin? The ending of The Witch is immensely spoilable. Eggers was willing to comment in a general way about what informed the closing scenes: “I am very committed to it [the ending] because religion, mythology, folk tales, the occult, these are more important than film to me and this is what I spend my time occupying my mind with. If we are not getting into things like that, I'm not particularly interested otherwise.”
The occult in this movie can be defined as “beyond the range of ordinary knowledge or experience.” Whether or not you suspend your disbelief will depend entirely upon your inclination and desire to make out a witch’s cloak, floating in a dark and primitive night.