We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.
Through the ages, and right up to today, people have faced many hardships in trying to find a new and better life for themselves. However, when those outside elements force loved ones to turn on each other, the struggle to survive becomes even more difficult, if not altogether impossible. In Robert Eggers’ incredible directorial debut, The VVitch (as it is more exotically spelled), an early 17th century New England family is besieged by malevolent forces that threaten to tear them apart. The film is an extremely eerie, unsettling and disturbing look into the life of early America’s superstitious settlers.
Taking place in 1630, decades before the Salem witch trials took place (perhaps the first of many ignoble periods in America’s history), The VVitch centers on a Puritan farmer, William, who, after a falling out with the church, leaves his colonial plantation and civilization behind for a stretch of land nearby a foreboding-looking forest for his wife, Katherine and four children to settle down in. One day, their newborn son is mysteriously snatched away by an apparent witch, or is it perhaps, wolves? It is then that things begin to unravel for this deeply religious family. The parents, along with daughter, Thomasin, son Caleb, and twins, Mercy and Jonas, begin to distrust and accuse one another of causing the misfortune that has befallen them. As threats mount from within the forest and within the family itself, their faith may not be enough to protect them from the evil that lurks all around them.
Writer/director Robert Eggers has done an amazing job of re-creating the time period of New England of the early 1600s, in setting, mood, costumes, and maybe most of all, dialogue. In fact, much of the language comes from actual journals from the era, as people speak phrases like, “I’ll vanish you too if thou doth not please me.” This greatly adds to the atmosphere of the film, lending it an air of authenticity that totally immerses the audience into the story. It’s as though the filmmakers went through a time portal and chronicled the genuine goings-on of the period. Especially convincing is the forest setting, as these seemingly benign woods become an ominous and dangerous place.
Bringing such difficult language to life is the remarkably convincing cast, led by newcomer, Anya Taylor-Joy as eldest daughter, Thomasin. She is a wonderful find, and does an exemplary job of conveying the dangers and terrors she and the family face, a task even more impressive as Spanish is the first language for the young Argentine-Anglo-American actress. Ralph Ineson, as William, is also terrific in portraying a father striving to achieve the best for his family while at the same time, struggling to keep it together against ungodly influences. Also exceptional in invoking the grim proceedings are Kate Dickie as the not-always-supportive wife, Katherine, Harvey Scrimshaw as the beleaguered elder son, Caleb, and Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as the creepy fraternal twins, Mercy and Jonas. And let’s not forget the extraordinary animal cast, from horses and hares to ravens and goats, though Charlie, as the devilish goat, Black Phillip, was apparently a nightmare to work with, making the director’s life a living hell. So, maybe Charlie was just really getting into character, who knows.
Horror and religion have been inextricably linked for centuries. Stories concerning ghosts, witches and demons all have religious overtones, and The VVitch certainly shows the extent people can take religion and adhere to its principles to the extreme. Here we have a family with no choice but to be close-knit as they are completely cut off from any other people. Thusly, they turn to religion for comfort, hope and answers when difficulties arise. But when one so zealously devotes themselves to God to the point where it consumes their every breath and dictates their every move, what is supposed to be a comfort can become more of a burden, preventing one from truly experiencing life and love. Indeed, when one’s beliefs take precedence over one’s own family, it is safe to say that they may be taking their faith a little too far.
The VVitch, which premiered to exceptional acclaim at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, is being released by A24, the independent American film company which brought us such offbeat genre fare as Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, Tusk, by New Jersey’s own, Kevin Smith, and last year’s Academy Award nominated, Ex Machina. It is a frightening film, not just because of the supernatural terrors that exist, but because of what those terrors enable a family to inflict upon each other. In an interview on NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly, writer/director Eggers says that “good horror is really about confronting darkness and humanity. And that’s not always, like, a fun, popcorn romp.” The VVitch certainly isn’t going to be a crowd-pleasing favorite to be watched over and over again like a Jaws, a Halloween, an Alien or The Thing. However, The VVitch is destined to be a future horror classic, both nightmarish in content and frightening as a piece of our history.
— review by Brian de Castro