FILM REVIEW – THE WITCH. With Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger. Written and directed by Robert Eggers. Rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity. 92 minutes.
What if all that nonsense about witches that led to the Salem witch trials was actually true? THE WITCH is a low-budget arthouse film that takes that premise and, well, doesn’t exactly run with it. It’s more like a slow stroll. This is an interesting, methodic film that will appeal to some and seem much longer than its 92 minutes to others.
It’s 1630 and a a family is banished from its New England settlement for failing to adhere to the religious orthodoxy of the community. They set up a remote farm near a dark forest and that’s where the story really begins. As odd things happen, the devout family wonders if they are under some sort of curse, especially when one of their members disappears. For a while things seem explainable but eventually it gets truly weird.
Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the eldest child. Suspicion begins to fall on her as having made a deal with the devil, especially after her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) disappears. Her parents William and Katherine (Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie) try to hold things together but eventually they turn on her. Is she a witch? Are the woods a hiding place for supernatural forces? The movie does finally answer these questions, but will have lost many viewers in the process.
The film comes on the wave of enthusiastic reviews from last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and that should be the giveaway. What plays well at this showcase for arty films doesn’t always work elsewhere. As a small atmospheric film that tries to get into the mindset of a 17th-century family dealing with death and the unknown, it succeeds. On the other hand, as a horror film that has long stretches where nothing happens, it doesn’t work at all. Indeed, the payoff for the story seems quite out of keeping with the rest of it.
Cast with unknowns (although Ineson and Dickie did have roles on “Game of Thrones”), it’s a movie that takes a long time to get going. The key performance is by Taylor-Joy, who can only hope this movie does for her what “Winter’s Bone” (2010) did for Jennifer Lawrence in launching a career. She is quite affecting showing Thomasin’s playfulness, an attitude that is inherently suspect in this environment. The other characters are mostly sketched in, leaving the actors to make the most with what little they’ve been given.
“The Witch” will likely crash and burn because its being sold as a mass audience film when it is not. If you’re intrigued enough by the premise, it’s worth taking a chance. Those looking for cheap thrills would do better to look elsewhere.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.