Creakingly self-serious might be the best way to describe Robert Eggers' The Witch. Riding high on massive levels of critical buzz (Sundance strikes again!), this period piece horror film wants so badly to be fresh, concocting a minimalist and moody woodland tragedy from the ruins of a family torn apart by religious fundamentalism. Working in a genre with more variations than Ben and Jerry's ice cream, its pretentious pursuit feels misguided.
Set in 1630, The Witch delivers a cold open where a community council has just decided to banish an entire family from a New England outpost. This is the closest thing early America has to law and order. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and their twin siblings watch as father William (Ralph Ineson) and mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) denounce the puritanical doctrine of their neighbors. The family proudly vacates civilization for an isolated homestead on the edge of a thick forest.
It doesn't take long for life on the wild frontier to get spooky and, in turn, for The Witch to get moody. Obvious music cues telegraph the torment to come. Eggers hammers the point home even further by using telephoto lenses to ominously zoom in on the tree line, alluding to an evil presence lying in wait. Guess what happens next?
Initially, Eggers effectively introduces the eponymous witch and her near supernatural ability to move through space. One moment Thomasin is playing peak-a-boo with her infant brother and the next the baby is gone from view. Silence. One truly horrifying montage later and it's abruptly clear what kind of evil we're dealing with.
From here, The Witch becomes more about how a child's disappearance leads to the disintegration of the family unit. Thomasin watches as guilt, blame and resentment take root. Her mother becomes a recluse, her father riddled by regret. The remaining children are left to construct self-destructive counter narratives to cope with the trauma.
Eggers dabbles with symbolism, but doesn't put much stock in the power of suggestion. There's a mysterious rabbit that could be a shape-shifter. Thickets of branches reach out like hands toward every corner of the frame. Occasionally, the demon woman herself will rear her not so ugly head just to remind you that these silly humans have no real choice in dictating their fate.
The film's religious overtones become more problematic as the situation turns increasingly deadly. "We must fund some light in our darkness," mutters William, just one of the many self-righteous quips he throws at his brood as they suffer mightily. It's all so oppressive and overt.
By the time The Witch reaches its foregone conclusion, all of the strained stabs at supernatural ambiguity feel soulless. While certain visuals are undeniably frightening, most of the film fails to incite the kind of visceral sense of helplessness associated with the best horror films. The Blair Witch Project is a far scarier look at the cross-section between nature and psychological terror.
If I'm giving Eggers' film a particularly hard time its because so many of my colleagues have pegged it as the second coming of The Shining. While there's a lot to admire about the detail and nuance that went in to the costume and production design, the story's core themes are neither revelatory nor transcendent.
In the end, The Witch, which opens Friday, Feb. 19, clumsily conflates the costly spread of Christianity and the breakdown of the family unit with a young woman's pubescent awakening. Blur the lines between reality and fantasy all you want; it's all posturing for a flimsy story that doesn't dig all that deep into why contradiction and rage lie at the heart of all religious doctrine.