Almost two months after I've seen this movie, I'm still trying to decide what I think of it. It's certainly effective, accomplishing everything it sets out to do. Robert Eggers is scarily self-assured at the helm of his first feature film, creating an atmosphere of uncanniness and spiritual dread that is unwavering and flawlessly oppressive. If The Exorcist is a horror movie for Catholics, then The Witch is a horror movie for Protestants: Because the individual (not the institutional church) is responsible for tending the garden of the soul, then the ultimate horror is spiritual rot that comes from within, not from without. Eggers's confident writing and directing bring this horror to life, giving us an atmospheric portrayal of a farm whose decaying crops mirror the decay of the family that tends them.
This movie depicts evil, and it's not a safe, Hollywood-ized evil. The fright and anxiety provoked by The Witch are not of the pleasurable sort that humans have treasured ever since the very first campfire spook story. Eggers gives us no showy "power of Christ compels you" theatrics, no toe-to-toe showdown with some impeccably terrifying grotesque. There is only the inexorable withering of a Christian family that is cut off from the vine that nourished and supported it. There is only the final capitulation to satanic temptation: quiet and blackly reasonable.
Is The Witch a successful and well-crafted film? Absolutely. Is it worth seeking out? That is less clear. Certainly, there's value in showing evil as the destructive, disturbing force that it actually is. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he doesn't exist, as the saying goes; so dragging him into the limelight and refusing to gussy him up with captivating cinematic finery requires both aesthetic discipline and moral discernment. It is good to be reminded that evil is evil, at least in theory. In practice, though, Eggers's film feels uncomfortably real—you may not have witnessed your family being devoured by spiritual darkness in the New England wilderness, but you very likely have heard a soft whisper beckoning you from the shadows to "live deliciously." In this way, watching The Witch feels somewhat akin to watching a rape-sploitation flick such as I Spit on Your Grave. It is good to be reminded of the true horror of sexual assault or utter spiritual ruin, but receiving that reminder by watching a realistic enactment of such things takes us out into deeper seas. Let the viewer beware: here be dragons.