“A fiercely committed ensemble and an exquisite sense of historical detail conspire to cast a highly atmospheric spell in The Witch, a strikingly achieved tale of a mid-17th-century New England family’s steady descent into religious hysteria and madness,” begins Variety’s Justin Chang. “[W]riter-director Robert Eggers’s impressive debut feature walks a tricky line between disquieting ambiguity and full-bore supernatural horror, but leaves no doubt about the dangerously oppressive hold that Christianity exerted on some dark corners of the Puritan psyche.”
“Using the flowery language of the time (we’re not past the three-minute mark before we hear ‘banish-shed’) an eerie self-exiled 1630s New England family goes about its daily ritual in a haze of religious fundamentalism,” writes Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian. “In time we learn their names—the scraggly haired father William (Ralph Ineson), his sour wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), verge-of-puberty son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), somewhat rowdy twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) and baby Sam. Beyond their small farm, which is currently failing to produce corn, there’s a brook and, beyond that, naturally, a deep, foreboding wood…. The Witch is more reminiscent of Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills than any typical American horror flick. Which is not to say things don’t go completely off the rails by the final third. (Malick’s The New World meets The Exorcist is as fine an elevator pitch as any.) What’s striking is the high-wire tension Eggers maintains.”
“What’s troubling about this sharply acted and beautifully shot film is the historical implications it courts,” suggests A.A. Dowd at the AV Club. “A subtitle announces The Witch as ‘a New England folktale,’ and Eggers seems intent on positioning it as an origin story of American fanaticism. But since the early scenes make it abundantly clear that the supernatural threat is very real, and not in the minds of its characters, it follows that any subsequent witch hunts—like, say, the one that really happened a few decades later in Salem—might be at least partially justified. In a way, The Witch plays like a horror-movie answer to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, presenting an alternate American history in which true evil exists and religious hysteria is the proper response to it. That might seem like a lot of freight to put on a movie featuring a possessed ram, but not since Frailty, perhaps, has a horror film made a better (and perhaps inadvertent) case for zealotry.”
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy: “Beholding the director’s carefully judged use of symmetrically framed compositions, focus on children who may be in touch with other realms, carefully gauged naturalistic lighting, eerie classically tinged scoring and outbursts of female hysteria, it comes as no surprise to learn that the two most important influences on Eggers here were Kubrick‘s The Shining and Bergman‘s Cries and Whispers; from the former come the visual style and the sense of a place possibly haunted long ago, from the latter the spectacle of incipient madness overtaking women.”
“Calling to mind The White Ribbon in its unsettling tone and sense of rural mystery, The Witch doesn’t leave much doubt that there indeed is a witch in the forest,” notes Tim Grierson in Screen. “But Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke make up for that narrative drag with a series of superb suspense sequences. The Witch’s greatest asset is its precisely controlled menace, and so even when nothing terrifying is happening, it feels like something ominous could be unleashed at any moment.”
“After so much buildup, the gruesome climax doesn’t exactly come as a surprise,” grants Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “But that hardly matters when the atmospheric dread hangs so heavily in the air.” HitFix‘s Drew McWeeney: “This is one of those films where I can’t think of a single complaint, where things are so complete, so singular, that I can’t imagine any other version.” And Variety‘s Peter Debruge talks with Eggers.
Updates, 1/25: “The Witch is the sort of singular, crazily ambitious, utterly unforgettable film that Sundance should showcase but too often doesn’t,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “Little wonder that people were all but kicking shins to get into the theater at both screenings—a few select critics had apparently been given a sneak preview before the festival began, and word of something special quickly spread. Whatever one’s stereotypical conception of a ‘Sundance movie’ may be (and such stereotypes are rooted in truth), this ain’t it.”
“The hype is not unwarranted,” writes Bilge Ebiri at Vulture. Eggers “uses tense, atonal, howling music and sustained, slow zooms to keep us on the edge about what exactly we’re witnessing. In doing so, he mires us in a kind of wonderfully agonizing uncertainty. These people live in a world where even the simplest thing is filled with mystery and terror. As we watch The Witch, and maybe even for a while afterwards, we’re in that world with them.”
Updates, 1/31: “Eggers skillfully torques the tension with shrieking music, eerie silences, shock cuts and one hard-charging goat but never breaks the skin of his sleek surfaces,” finds Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.
“With a horror movie, competence can get you far, and The Witch is one of the most competently made of this era, in which things like production design, framing, editing, and painterly beauty are impossible to come by,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “The terror ought to build (and it does here), but so should the meaning. And despite all this craftsmanship, the randomness starts to get on your nerves.”
“There are confident first features, and there’s The Witch, the exhilaratingly scary debut in which writer-director Robert Eggers tramples over the cowardice of the genre he’s just grabbed by the throat,” writes David Ehrlich for Time Out New York. “The Witch is a major horror event on par with recent festival sensations like Kill List and The Babadook. Haunting doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
“The Witch was by far the most out-of-the-box debut I saw at Sundance, and a welcome one at that,” agrees Sarah Salovaara at Filmmaker. More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3.5/5), Michael Cusumano (Film Experience) and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com). And Nigel M. Smith interviews Eggers for Indiewire.
Update, 2/1: Buzzfeed‘s Alison Willmore: “It’s a credit to the world that Eggers evokes in The Witch, which was gorgeously and forbiddingly shot by Jarin Blaschke with great use of the lurking darkness, that so many of the film’s period-specific menaces are creepy instead of ridiculous. Let’s put it this way: You will believe a goat can channel Satan.”