Not fully satisfyingly achieving the balance between religious reflection and religious reflection-spun dread, The Witch still offers a beautifully shot and scored shunned-fable about projection of sin by a banished family who lives adjacent to a shunned wood of thistles, brambles, and maybe a witch (or a coven?). It’s fairly terrifying in its sense of complete isolation that its characters feel: where there is no society, the woods cannot be “lovely, dark and deep.”
What’s horrific–in a non-generic genre way–is how religious reflection drives the plot ahead. The dialogue is presumably good since the accent is hard to understand; I’m not sure if it’s an acceptable tradeoff for the sake of authenticity. The film is strong until the first act because we are waiting for a witch to show up, and in a sense, after a period of lull in the second, with overlong discussions and accusations inside the family’s creepy candlelit shack, the plot picks up pace in the second half, with additional disappearances and perceived resurrections. The oldest daughter, the protagonist, does not quite achieve the gravitas-while-praying that Emily Watson did in Breaking The Waves, because, in part and in a contradictory sense, The Witch avoids the maudlin and the sentimental, opting instead for the macabre-in-a-mummified-Vatican. But it is the oldest daughter and her relationship with her father and oldest brother–if not a certain black goat–that ground the proceedings.
The film flirts with disgust as well, in a way that feels neither windblown indie nor veiny American; after all, it is the 1630s. There’s unexpected levitation but not sufficient incantation, and as the end credits roll and we try to cleanly connect each of the seven sins to a family member, we–too accustomed to the literal–wish there was an actual witch, a bodied antagonist. Maybe there was, but the movie leaves it open unlike a self-flagellating sermon. But for secular audiences, the fervency drags a tad long and feels repetitive, especially the parents’. I wanted more of those billbilly twins (‘hillbilly’ is post-Industrial, right?) because, you know, when you’re watching a super-period horror story, you want more marmalade lusciousness from the Del Toro spread, rather than a terrifyingly built up accusation game of sin-laden thistles and brambles, and antichrist-charming animals. We don’t get the dollops we enter the theater for, and maybe that’s a good thing.
The sound and the score are effective, and the final denouement somewhat shocking and unpredictable. Bewitching and bedeviling, if also uneven. (Alas, the crass can’t be escaped.)