Billed as a "New England Folktale," writer-director Robert Eggers’ accomplished feature-length debut manages a tricky balance: On the one hand an elegant period piece about the dissolution of a New England family circa 1630, it’s also a genuinely unsettling horror movie about possession. Almost exclusively set at a drab cabin and the ominous woods surrounding it, the movie’s minimalist approach doesn’t lack for authenticity, as Eggers relies on court records and other documents to script the dialogue along with costumes from the period in question. The effect is a haunting narrative of otherworldly forces made especially scary due to the realism surrounding them.
Despite the sophisticated execution, "The Witch" contains a fairly simple story: Puritanical Christians William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickey) haul their five children to an isolated patch of wilderness in the hopes of living out an idyllic existence. But the space has an eerie quality from the outset, and it doesn’t take long for creepy occurrences to endanger their cozy setup. Crops inexplicably start dying and shadowy beings creep about in the night. When the couple’s newborn child vanishes, it’s only the start of several jolting developments that threaten each family member’s life. Once middle child Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) wanders into the woods alone and encounters a possibly supernatural menace, the isolated setting turns into a claustrophobic lair in which doom lurks at every corner.
At the center of this turmoil is blond teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s grappling with her burgeoning womanhood and developing sense of confidence even as her father’s harsh judgements of her reckless behavior threaten her independence. When she jokingly spooks one of her younger sisters by pretending to be a witch, the stunt comes back to haunt her. While Eggers makes it clear that genuine evil is afoot, Thomasin’s ambiguous role at the center of it all turns "The Witch" into a disturbing portrait of emerging adulthood.
The authenticity of these characters’ struggles is complimented by an expressionistic style that extends their emotional state to the world around them. With its murky, candlelit forest scenery and the mysterious cult antics found within, "The Witch" calls to mind the similarly disorienting storytelling approach of Ben Wheatley’s "Kill List" by way of "The Crucible." Ultimately, though, Eggers is primarily indebted to Stanley Kubrick for the movie’s haunting cinematic tapestry, with the grey-toned imagery of the menacing woods matched by a shrieking orchestral score and elegant framing strategies that create the sense of a fully defined world.
Above all else, "The Witch" benefits from the credibility of its performances. As the perennially insecure matriarch, Dickie’s despondence meshes with the stern delivery of her husband, whom Ineson manages to imbue with the well-intentioned convictions of his character’s beliefs despite his stern demeanor. As Caleb, the young Scrimshaw excels at embodying the curiosity of adolescence. But Taylor-Joy is the true standout for her grim, nervous delivery that gives the story its chief focus.
Eggers is so committed to nailing the period that his cast’s heavy accents and antiquated language often make it difficult to discern the details of every exchange. Fortunately, the visually sophisticated narrative transcends linguistic boundaries, and with its unnerving, wordless finale, abandons them completely.
After so much buildup, the gruesome climax doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. But that hardly matters when the atmospheric dread hangs so heavily in the air. In true horror movie tradition, only good deeds go punished. "We will conquer this wilderness," William asserts to his brood. "It will not consume us." As the vanity of that assertion turns literal, "The Witch" becomes a focused portrait of fixed rituals crumbling in the face of inexplicable forces, evoking the fear of change lurking in the shadows at every moment. Despite the setting, its scares are uniquely contemporary.
"The Witch" opens in limited theatrical release this week.