The Witch has received a wide theatrical release and the marketing of a horror movie, a choice that is bound to produce confused and disappointed audiences. Far from a standard fright flick, this feature debut from writer-director Robert Eggers is actually the world's creepiest historical reenactment.
Or make that semi-historical. When it drew crowds at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, The Witch was subtitled "A New-England Folktale" — words that still appear in its theatrical credits. That's precisely what it is: a meticulously researched depiction of Puritan life in 1630, presenting the superstitious terrors as literal truth right alongside the homespun dress and biblically tinged speech.
Even among the Calvinistically inclined, paterfamilias William (Ralph Ineson) is extreme; the film opens with his expulsion from a colonial settlement because he wants to do his own preaching. Rejoicing in the opportunity to conquer the wilderness for Christ, William leads his wife (Kate Dickie) and five children to an isolated new homestead. They raise their arms in prayer while a shrieking, dissonant choir mounts on the soundtrack, hinting that things may not go well.
Indeed. Not only does the family quickly begin starving rather than thriving, but the infant son vanishes while under the care of eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Eggers shows the viewer exactly what happened to the babe (it's not pretty). But the characters remain in the dark, assailed by fears that are fueled by their own particularly grim interpretation of Scripture.
Horror movies have trained us to assume that horror comes either from inside (hallucinations and delusions) or outside (a real natural or supernatural threat). In this film, however, it's both, with the focus not on the external threat but on the family's chaotic and self-destructive response to it.
The actors do an astonishing job of bringing to life the period dialogue, some of it drawn from historical documents. While their speech can be alien, their strife is familiar, from the husband's regrets to the wife's resentment of his demands to Thomasin's fitful episodes of teen rebellion. Unlike the modern family in, say, The Conjuring, these folks don't have to be convinced of the existence of witches and demons — they already spend their days meditating on hellfire. But their beliefs don't save them, and their human complexity makes their fates particularly horrific.
Some have faulted The Witch for not presenting a rationalist counter-narrative to those beliefs, suggesting that the film could stoke Salem-style paranoia. But painting that paranoia in its native environment, not defending it in ours, appears to be the point of this "folktale." (That subhead matters.)
And Eggers paints with immense artistry. The movie crawls under our skin not because it depicts evil, but because its world is suffused with the dread of so many evils, from black magic to failing crops — any of which could doom the characters. By the end of the film, it's easy to see why a young woman of this era might sign a covenant with the devil: He promises her "the taste of butter in your mouth." That simple phrase underlines the difference between a world of scarcity and our own, and it reminds us that every time and place begets its own monsters.
Slow-paced, shot mostly with natural light and stiflingly limited in scope, The Witch doesn't have much to satisfy those who crave conventional scares. Yet we leave it deeply unsettled, as if we've time traveled back into our ancestors' worst nightmares.