At any moment in human history, no matter how civilized we may think we are, dark woods have always had a deep capacity to scare the hell out of us. Lars von Trier was not wrong in his observance that “Nature is Satan’s church,” insofar as that our fears rule us when we are alone in any unfettered wilderness. Long, uncomfortable zooms into the black, endless trees vis-a-vis handsome camera-work is merely the tip of buried dread from first time director Robert Eggers. His previous work as a production designer serves him well in making such a small and insular movie, pretty much a single location shoot, The Witch, feel portentous and unfathomably large. You do not view the film so much bear witness to this family on the brink.
Set in early 17th century New England, we are introduced to the pious, yet insolent, patriarch of the film’s puritan family, William, and his row with the local clergy; of whom he deems not strict enough (or perhaps corrupt) in how they preach and practice the scripture. With more than a bit of self-importance and rage, he packs up his wife, Katherine, along with their five children, and sets out to forge his own homestead outside the (relative) safety of the muddy roads and towns walls. United in faith, they will conquer this wilderness; it will not consume them.
What ensues is a slow-burn, household collapse in the crucible of pilgrim stress: Failed crops, religious fervour and superstition, along with a healthy portion of hypocrisy grimly test familial and spiritual bonds. Drama and domestic minutiae are placed first and foremost over genre tropes, albeit these are far from absent, lurking on the periphery almost waiting to pounce. Staying true to accounts of the time period, with a taste for ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ on the tongue, the film is earnest in its presentation, laying itself open to easy mockery from those who do not synchronize up with its particular vibrations. The Witch reminded me immensely of James Marsh’s wonderfully sinister (and sorely unappreciated) Wisconsin Death Trip, a documentary re-enactment of newspaper clippings and letters from a mid-western town that went inexplicably mad in the 19th century; a fever dream with no answers. Eggers is slightly more pragmatic in his approach, although I remain somewhat unconvinced that films like this benefit from answers. (see also, Ti West’s House of the Devil.)