Review: The Witch

Jack Whitehead 18 April 2016

The Witch has been described as a horror film and marketed as such. It is a story about witches, and remoteness, but it is so much more than that. If someone were to ask me what The Witch is about, I would say that it’s all about the pressures of religion, family dynamics, about how isolation and loss can make people crazy.

The film starts when a family is banished from their Puritan village as punishment for the father’s ‘prideful conceit’. The family gathers their belongings (everything owned by a man, a pregnant woman and their four children fits in a cart) and leave the village searching for a place to settle down. They soon find it, and build a farm near a stream, beside a wood.

Watching the film, I found myself hoping they wouldn’t stop there. Couldn’t they hear the ominous music? Couldn’t they see the darkness obviously emanating from the forest? But of course they couldn’t! To them, it was just a perfect place to start a farm, and as such, they got off their cart and prayed.

And this is important: the family is Puritan. They pray. They believe in God, and they believe that when they die they can go to Heaven… or Hell. They believe that witches are women who have made pacts with the devil, and they believe that witches can walk amongst them. And one of them does.

The forest beside the farm has a witch. She hardly appears in the film, and yet, she is a pervading presence in it. She is the cause of the family’s tragedy: she steals the baby, who the oldest sister was looking after. This action brings grief to the family, and distrust. From that moment, events spiral, and everything seems to go wrong.

The Witch is a beautiful film: the use of light and the carefully made costumes ensure that. The fantastic acting (Kate Dickie and Anya Taylor-Joy are stunning in their roles) transports you to the end of the 18th century, and the carefully crafted and researched dialogue (a lot of it sourced from witch trials from the time) draws you in.

One of the things that makes The Witch so good is ellipsis. Everything that isn’t said or shown: you don’t see the death of the baby, you don’t hear the goat until the end. This could have been done to an even greater extent: yes, The Witch is a horror film, but it might have been even more claustrophobic, even more horrifying, if the witch had never been shown. But of course, then it may not have been as powerful a film as the one I watched.