***WARNING*** This review contains spoilers
The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers): First-time director Robert Eggers’s period piece about a Puritan family banished from their community facing off with Satan is mired in details. It’s readily apparent that Eggers is obsessed with authenticity, from the clothing to the speech to the architecture. So obsessed, in fact, that he was upset he had to settle for shooting on a remote tract of land in Canada rather than New England because of tax incentives. We even learn after the film that the dialogue is largely recreated from court records and personal accounts from the era. What the effect of these details ultimately is, I’m not sure. I certainly had no trouble believing that this was 17th Century New England, that the characters were God-fearing Christians, or that the way they spoke and the food they ate was really how people from that time spoke and ate. But so what? I believed the same long enough for The Village not because it was mired in historical accuracy (in fact, a giant red flag in that film early on is the lack of explicit references to Christianity), but because it effectively built a believable atmosphere regardless of what the reality of that supposed era was. That sort of thing is good for a war film because it’s more or less trying to depict factual events.
But I wouldn’t have known how supposedly accurate all the details were unless I’d read several accounts about its accuracy. What I mean to say is that none of the technical details Eggers slaved over pushed the narrative forward in any noticeable way, meaning that if there was something so historically accurate that it felt completely out of place due to its violation of the pact with its audience of willing suspension of disbelief, then representing the facts as they really were would actually have been a detriment to the film as art.
It’s a good film—not great, but good. Here’s one thing: I’m not convinced the movie is operating on a deeper level than good horror films normally do—and that’s not a detriment. One of my favorite things about John Carpenter’s Halloween is that it doesn’t so much comment on a social issue so much as it exploits your blind spots about what’s normally considered a safe environment. It’s a simple home invasion tale, where the perpetrator is a guy who isn’t a hulking monster (like in Rob Zombie’s sacrilegious “remakes”), but a little-more-than-average white guy who’s just a smidge taller than you, a tad stronger than you. And because of that Michael Myers is able to effectively exploit your weakness about this misgiving that white suburbia is a nice place where nothing bad ever happens, when it reality it’s just as ripe for horror as anyplace else because horror infects the world.
So, too, does The Witch not offer explicit social commentary (thank God). Instead, it takes you to a time and place where a certain people believed their every action and thought were being judged harshly by God, and that the only way to escape eternal damnation was to grovel regularly about their pathetic, sinful ways. But it’s not really about the oppressiveness of religion or man’s relationship with nature; it’s a movie about flawed characters whose flaws lead them to their demise. Caleb lusts after his sister by constantly staring at her breasts and accordingly is seduced by a busty witch in disguise. The mother’s shaken faith at the death of her two sons leads her to believe their apparitions are real and not the crow pecking at her exposed breast. The father’s pride in trying to preserve his family by avoiding confessing his sins leads to their deaths.
The horror here arises from living in a time when evil lurked seemingly everywhere, not just in your basement at night when the sole bulb burns out, but alone in a punishing world where Satan roams freely. Not knowing any better makes it all the more frightening, and Eggers is effective enough of a director to shake any certainty you have that hell isn’t real.