A banished family homesteads on the outskirts of a dark, dense forest in rookie writer-director Robert Eggers' exhilarating new horror film The Witch, which opens Friday in limited release. In the hands of Eggers and his team, the forest is also, somehow, animate.
Black trees sashay in the wind. Gnarly uprooted trunks expose their grotesque nethers, like carcasses corrupted. The camera, as positioned by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, doesn't move an awful lot. It's not there to elicit cheap thrills via jump cuts or herky-jerky pans. It does the opposite, lingering on images of the forest at a distance or up close, zooming ever so slowly as the tension builds, coaxed onward by a spare and stringy score. We know, of course, that something evil lurks within.
The Witch is a masterwork of mood. And perhaps it goes without saying, but the mood is extremely dark. The film isn't scary, per se, at least not in the jumpy vein of today's horror-slash-thrillers. It is more, shall we say, distressing.
It is the 1630s, ah, the 1630s. A devout Christian family, for Puritanical reasons not quite clear, is banished from their colonial village in an opening courthouse scene. William (Game of Thrones' Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Game of Thrones' Kate Dickie, who breast feeds under ghastlier circumstances here than in GoT, if it can be believed), and their brood of five set up a primitive home and farm some distance away, on the edge of the wood. Very soon — in the first 10 minutes of the movie — the baby, Samuel, is abducted. He disappears before the eyes of the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) who, ominously, has just "received the sign of her womanhood" for the first time.
As traumatic events often do, the baby's disappearance frays the family nerves. Katherine falls into despair, weeping in prayer to a god she no longer trusts. Caleb, the middle child and eldest son, gazes in longing at Thomasin's budding breasts while trying to keep an even keel. William has stolen his wife's cherished silver cup and bartered it for food — their crop of corn has failed — but doesn't own up when Thomasin gets blamed. Only the gnomic young twins, Jonas and Mercy, remain chipper. They prance around the farm singing Christian hymns and commune in whispers with Black Phillip, the family goat.
The despair and distrust leaves them vulnerable to all sorts of unpleasantness: satanic possession, notably. When Caleb wanders into the woods, lured by a lusty phantasm, and returns, naked and possessed, the farm becomes a chaos of blame and paranoia. Who is the witch among them?
The Witch is technically superb and it hews, at least in flavor, to historical authenticity. The dialogue has been harvested from court documents and journal entries, we're told, and both the language itself and the costumes and sparse sets create an atmosphere of stark realism.
We must not dwell for too long on questions of accuracy, though. The Witch is billed, after all, as a "New England folktale." And one suspects that embellished stories like this were the fear-mongering sort that helped persecute scores of could-be witches during America's grim 17th century.
If you make that face too long, it'll stay that way, parents warn their children today. Back then, the stakes were higher: If you lie to me, satan will possess your soul, and we'll hang you by the neck 'til you die.
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