"The Witch" is not only "A New-England Folktale," as it is described in the opening titles, but legitimately looks, sounds and feels as if writer-director Robert Eggers somehow took modern film cameras back to 1630 and shot it using real-life Puritan settlers. For this reason and so much more, this is a boldly stirring feature debut, a destined-to-endure horror picture of wicked terrors both real and imagined; indeed, it is no surprise Eggers won the Best Director award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Playing out at a deliberate tempo yet transfixing in its devilishly unnerving aura, "The Witch" does nothing if not seep under one's skin and stay there.
Ousted from his plantation after clashing with the community over a desire for stricter religious reform, William (Ralph Ineson) moves his familywife Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and baby Samuelto an isolated farmstead cut off from society. With no crops able to grow during the late-fall and winter months, they face a challenging season before them. When little Samuel suddenly goes missing under Thomasin's watch, William and Katherine see it as either a test from God or punishment for their sins. Once tragedy strikes again soon thereafter, the bereaved and frightened family members begin to point the finger at each other as faith-laden hysteria and the looming threat of witchcraft overcome them.
"The Witch" trusts in the intelligence and imagination of viewers, understanding the value of suggestion while genuinely surprising as it dares to burrow to truly unsparing places. The film's fastidious authenticity contributes to the spell; Eggers made sure the clothing, tools, reconstructed 17th-century farmhouse, and use of North Yorkshire accents were true to the story's era. If the proceedings are a breathtakingly detailed achievement in historical research and production design, Eggers' screenplay, Jarin Blaschke's bewitchingly austere lensing, and Mark Korven's discordantly menacing score complete the illusion. Taking this journey alongside characters imprisoned by their own rigid beliefs and superstitions is akin to being on an out-of-control Tilt-a-Whirl with a screw coming perilously loose.
Breakthrough newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy is a revelation as Thomasin, a young woman misunderstood by her parents and siblings while facing a harsh discovery William and Katherine are not aware she knows. Taylor-Joy is an enthralling, frequently intense presence, holding her own in emotionally demanding situations yet also exquisitely embodying a vulnerable child yearning for answers of her own. Ralph Ineson (2015's "Kingsman: The Secret Service
") is touching as father William, grasping to find reason as the family he has raised begins to crumble, while Kate Dickie (2012's "Prometheus
") gives mother Katherine a sorrow and ruthlessness that leaves one wondering of what she is capable. Also truly impressive: Harvey Scrimshaw as the curious, thoughtful Caleb, the approach of puberty colliding with a darkness he dreads but cannot wholly envision. Younger performers Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson seamlessly round out the cursed clan as easily influenced twins Mercy and Jonas. Are their whisperings and games with their wily goat Black Phillip a childhood fancy, or an indication of more malevolent insinuations?
"The Witch" isn't merely a throwback to a different time, but to a bygone cinematic age wherein the horror genre was not about jump scares but about a more lastingly shuddersome, thematically juicy potency. Casual mainstream audiences looking for cheap thrills need not apply; as a provocative study in familial grief, the dangers of religious zealotry, and the evolution of a new world cloaked in fears of the unknown, this is a film requiring attention, patience, deeper consideration, and the allowance of each successive scene to wash over him or herself in a wave of eerie portent. For those willing to step aboard, the rewards are plentiful, all the more haunting for what isn't revealed as for what is.