The father maintains a stoical, God-fearing attitude, but he’s not much of a farmer, and is even worse at hunting for food. The disappearance of the baby is just one more strike against him. He’s a dud at this whole “head of the family” deal, so he spends a lot of nights aimlessly chopping wood, muttering to himself about Jesus. Thomasin, the oldest daughter who was supposed to be watching the baby when it was taken, is complex. She’s like many older sisters, nurturing and caring, obediently combing out her father’s woolens, but she also teases her younger siblings that she’s in league with the devil and plans to eat them someday. Then there’s Caleb, the oldest son, who feels guilty about the impure thoughts he has about Thomasin. It’s hard to blame Caleb for eyeballing his sister while living in such isolation. It’s either her, or his mother, and the mother (well played by Kate Dickie) is a coiled ball of grief over the missing child.
There are animals, too, including a large hare that seems impervious to gunfire (and cameramen), and Black Phillip, a menacing goat who, with nothing but his massive horns and his almond shaped eyes, can dominate any scene. The problem with the animals is that Eggers relies too heavily on them to create an atmosphere of dread. By the third time the rabbit stares into the camera twitching his nose, you've had enough.
In short, Eggers seems so pleased with subtleties, like an imp playing tricks, that the film never quite rears back and attacks us. Though Eggers went through great pains to recreate 1600s New England, especially the old English style of speaking (“Hold thy tongue, daughter mine!”), there’s little done to show what such isolation would do to a person’s mind, or how the idea of witchcraft might actually appeal to people down to their last ear of corn.
Eggers is saved, more or less, by a brilliant group of actors. As the father, Ralph Ineson is excellent, all scornful glances and bible talk to mask the frustration of watching his family come apart. Meanwhile, Anya Taylor-Joy is very fine as Thomasin, walking the thin line walked by all adolescent girls, in that she’s loyal to the family but angry at the restrictions placed upon her, and dismayed at how no one appears to trust her. Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are exceptional as the youngest members of the family, bobbling about like little trolls, while Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb might be the best of the bunch. Caleb's fever dream while under a spell is almost worth the price of admission.
It’s difficult to comment on Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, for his task was to recreate the bleak New England winter. The effect he achieves is probably accurate, with grey skies and ominous trees, but it quickly becomes dreary and monotonous. Did the sun never come out in the 1600s? Or was the sky still grey from the volcanic ash that supposedly killed the dinosaurs? What we get in several scenes is a movie so dimly lit that we can barely see what’s going on, while actors speak a language we can barely understand. It’s like sitting through Shakespeare, sort of grasping it, but hoping no one asks you to explain anything. To make things worse, there’s really nothing here that will raise half a goose bump. Eggers is content to creep us out a little, so we get a lot of “What just happened?” moments, such as a sudden scene of a raven pecking at a woman’s bleeding tit.
The images, though dreamily shot, don’t amount to much. I can’t imagine anyone, save those with a fear of goats, being frightened by anything in The Witch. In fact, for anyone who has watched a lot of horror movies, or read some scary literature, or better yet, had a nightmare that made your heart race, the movie will probably be a big snore.