The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015) is a tightly executed, claustrophobic tale set in New England in the early 1600s. It follows the family of teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) after her father’s outspoken opinions get them exiled from their Puritan community.
Thomasin, her brother Caleb, twin siblings Jonas and Mercy, baby brother Samuel, and her parents set up a small farm in a clearing on the edge of some deep woods. Soon after, Samuel goes missing while in Thomasin’s care, and food begins to get scarce. There’s a particularly unsettling scene with an old hag in the woods, but her motivations, while clearly sinister, are vague.
Thomasin’s parents, particularly her mother, struggle with the disappearance of Samuel, blaming his loss on wolves. Nevertheless, suspicion and mistrust settle in on the family, as young Mercy and Jonas claim that Black Phillip (the family’s ram) speaks to them, and that there is a witch lurking in the woods.
As supplies run lower, Thomasin’s parents discuss sending her to work back in the village, and tensions begin to flare, with Mercy accusing Thomasin of being the witch.
Soon, Caleb sneaks out to try to hunt some game, accompanied by Thomasin. He follows a rabbit into the woods and gets separated from Thomasin. He finds a hut in the woods, and is apparently seduced by the young woman inside. A young woman with suspiciously old-looking hands.
Thomasin, distraught when she can’t find Caleb, runs for home and meets her father. Accusations and recriminations ensue, but later that night Caleb returns home, nearly catatonic. In fairly short order, the twins have again accused Thomasin of witchcraft, Caleb has vomited out a whole apple, the twins have gone into comas, Caleb succumbs to his bewitchment, and things in general have gone from bad to worse, with Thomasin blaming the twins and their whispering ram for everything that has happened.
Thomasin’s father, seeking to put an end to the curse that is clearly plaguing his family, locks Thomasin and the twins, who by this time have somewhat revived, into the barn with the goats and ram. Tomasin’s mother, meanwhile, has been visited by visions of Caleb and baby Samuel, and has lost the last few remaining shreds of sanity.
During the night, the old hag from earlier turns up in the barn, and in the morning Thomasin’s father finds the scene strewn with dead goats, missing twins, and a bloody Thomasin who doesn’t seem to remember much.
Black Phillip kills Thomasin’s father by goring him then knocking him into a woodpile, and flees. Thomasin’s mother emerges from the cabin and attacks Thomasin, who kills her in self defense.
Thomasin, now alone in the world and in shock, slowly walks into the cabin and sits down at the table.
(Now if the film had ended here, with a hard cut to black as Thomasin sat down, I’d have thought it was a nearly perfect ending that preserved the overall ambiguity of everything we’d seen so far. Most everything that had happened could have been explained as bad luck, fear, insanity, and a crazy old woman in the woods, and it would have worked. Personally, I like the ambiguity, but not everyone does.)
At nightfall, Thomasin is awakened by a noise from the barn. She goes in to find Black Phillip. Perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps with specific intent, she begins speaking to the ram, who answers her, promising her fine clothes, rich food, and a beautiful life in exchange for her signature in the book that is now in front of her. The ram changes form to an elegantly dressed man (his face remains in shadows), as Thomasin completes the pact.
The film ends with Thomasin and the ram joining a coven of witches in the woods, and Thomasin floating into the air as she embraces her newfound power.
I thought this was an excellent film. The slow burn throughout, and the relative lack of cheap scares kept the tension building. Thomasin’s mother, played expertly by Game of Thrones veteran Kate Dickie (Lysa Arryn on GoT), slowly descends into madness as first one child, then another are lost to forces she can’t understand. Thomasin’s father (another GoT alum, Ralph Ineson) struggles to keep his fracturing family together, trying to play his best hand against an impossibly stacked deck.
The real standout, of course, is Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Thomasin as a girl on the edge of womanhood who is caught between her desires and dreams and her religiously oppressive society. Her struggles with that tension, within her family context, made it simple for her parents to believe she was a witch. It’s easy to see how she would be easily seduced by Black Phillip’s offers in the end.
It’s refreshing to see a well-done horror film that spends more time on character development than jump scares and showers of fake blood. In my opinion, The Witch joins It Follows on the short list of great horror films of the last 10 years.