Soaked in the colors of an oil painting and lit by gloom and lanterns, The Witch is a relentlessly oppressive mood piece. A Calvinist family has exiled itself from a settlement, only to be set upon by a witch from the forest. Crops fail, the baby goes missing, and something is awful suspicious about the black goat which moves around the homestead. Robert Eggers frames everything to make the actors seem either small or absolutely powerless; one motif consists of a worm’s eye view, from the back, as one of the family wanders towards the treeline, branches snaking into view as if to devour the interloper.
At times (Eggers’ script is too pulpy and straightforward for a coherent throughline, lacking the audacity of Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem), this emphasis on the natural world could read as a cautionary tale on imperialism. The family, led by stubborn fundamentalist William (Ralph Ineson), insists it can and will conquer the wilderness. Faith and prayer are their only weapons, as William’s efforts to hunt and farm appear desperate, a combination of the supernatural menace and his own inability. The way they turn on each other–particularly sullen teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is angered when she listens in on her parents plot to marry her off to another family; her defiance gets her accused of witchcraft–suggests an internal rot brought out by scarcity of resources and external threat. (William tells his oldest son “only God knows our true natures”) The family’s primary response is to double down on faith, deferring to a higher authority for aid. Their destruction is assured.