Most of the great horror stories play on the tension between, on the one hand, the psychological and the realistic and, on the other, the realm of the supernatural. Rosemary’s Baby, for example, surprises us by confirming that the “paranoid” fears of its heroine are actually real. Other horror stories leave such questions open: does the governess in The Turn of the Screw really see ghosts, or has her sanity begun to fray? Is The Shining’s Overlook Hotel haunted by otherworldly beings, or only by the all-too-human demons lurking within the American family? Robert Eggers’ The Witch plays a similar bait-and-switch game with its audience, presenting us with various, sometimes contradictory explanations for the gruesome circumstances that befall its characters. But—unlike in, say, The Turn of the Screw—its ambiguities end up creating more confusion than terror.
The film takes place in seventeenth-century New England, where a family of seven breaks away from a Puritan settlement in order to make their home “at the edge of a dark forest,” to quote the opening lines of “Hansel and Gretel” (a story that Eggers has previously filmed and to which The Witch alludes). There’s something inherently spooky about the way Eggers frames the tree line that borders the family’s house; it exudes an air of mystery and danger just by standing there. Then terrible things begin to happen. In the blink of an eye the youngest child, an infant, disappears, apparently snatched away by someone or something. While hunting in the woods, the oldest boy loses his way; he returns home hours later, feverish and raving. Suspicions fall on the family’s adolescent daughter. Earlier she had frightened her younger sister by calling herself a witch—was it only a joke? Are the two younger children communing with the devil in the form of the family goat? Is there really a witch lurking in the woods? Or are witches only innocent people who have the misfortune to run afoul of angry, frustrated authority figures looking for someone to blame for their problems?
Eggers’ answer, frustratingly, seems to be “all of the above.” At points he takes the accepted historicist interpretation that accusations of witchcraft in early America had more to do with the accusers’ anger, frustration, and repression than with actual devil worship. But because that interpretation doesn’t make for a very scary horror movie, Eggers gives us lurid images of witchcraft and devil worship, too. Through the use of some directorial sleights of hand, he prevents us from contextualizing these sequences (are they real? The imagined thoughts of the characters?). But he doesn’t have the command as a filmmaker to get away with such tricks. His attempts at building ambiguity into the film feel like the dodges of a clumsy storyteller, one who can’t decide whether he wants to tell a story about a witch or a “witch.”
Even as its structural foundation begins to collapse (especially in the final act), The Witch sustains a tone of palpable menace. From the very first establishing shot of the forest—it seems to stare back at us, cruel and impassive—the film builds atmosphere more powerfully than any other horror film of recent memory, which may be one of the reasons why it has been so well regarded critically. Its production design, sets, and cinematography are brilliantly rendered. Eggers has a sharp eye for images, spaces, and objects, but he needs to work on telling stories. For now, he would do well to stick with the Brothers Grimm.