In one respect you get the same old thing from The Witch, Robert Eggers’ stripped-down debut film about an exiled Puritan family trying to scrape by at the edge of the deep dark woods of a primordial New England. A brief afterword attests to the script’s attention to period detail, which lends credence to the years of pop culture cliches we know about witches. Your woodland hovel, your animal familiars, your cackling hags shapeshifting into buxom beauties are all present and accounted for. It doesn’t mess with established folklore, but it also sees no reason why it shouldn’t be as engrossing, or as terrifying, as if it’s being told for the very first time. Forgoing any political implications by setting the story as far away from civilization as possible, Eggers opts for a sincere narrative driven by private fear and uncertainty, zooming in on one family being ripped apart at the seams by forces inside and out, making for a tale of self-destruction that’s more The Thing than The Crucible.
Eggers gets around the cliches by focusing intently on the family’s incomprehension at what’s happening around them. The looks on their faces are as much the subject of attention as the things they witness, forcing us to acknowledge their distress before we can even confront whatever it is in front of them. Compounding the effect is our inability to offer easy explanations. We can’t say for sure what’s causing the family’s crops to fail any more than we can explain how baby Samuel goes missing during a game of peek-a-boo with teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) when he’s literally right under her nose. The former catastrophe is only indicated in dialogue, but the latter is shown in a series of back-and-forth closeups on Thomasin and Samuel, culminating in a final pair of shots: Thomasin’s growing look of panic, then an empty blanket. Eggers forces the 17th-century Puritan mindset on us, subverting modern attempts at rationalism with displays like Samuel’s disappearance, which first demand our sympathy, and second, deprive us of our powers of deduction.
The family’s fears and suspicions are only the table dressing for the horrors to come, though, as The Witch makes it no secret that a witch is in fact in their midst. Barely five minutes pass before we catch a glimpse of a figure scuttling through the woods, whose influence is revealed with increasing bleakness, as winter closes in and the family grieves first its exile, then the loss of a child. Holding them all together, or not, really, is Ralph Ineson’s father William, who struggles to keep the faith as the family’s spirits collapse. If a witch wasn’t around to destroy them in such style, he could do it just as easily, though in a more appropriately Puritan way, whether he’s disappointing his hysterical wife Katherine (Kate Dickey), or failing to convince his son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) of the specifics of God’s law.
While Eggers packs in plenty of religious contemplation without contempt or vulgarity, he also hits a strong feminine chord with the pubescent Thomasin, whose burgeoning womanhood is addressed by everyone but her, first through Caleb’s confused feelings, then her parents’ plans for her future when she comes of age. If The Witch isn’t going to explore witchcraft at the community level, then Thomasin is at least on hand to demonstrate the unclear thinking that led to the targeting of young women as witches throughout history. She begins the story as the ostensible protagonist, and for as downward a plunge as the story is for everyone involved, she’s the one to keep the closest eye on when the accusations (and witch) fly.
A short run time saves The Witch from a case of directorial debut ploddiness, but other than that, it’s a perfectly harrowing, lonely movie, helped along the way by its two Game of Thrones vets, each whose grim image from the show can be channeled into a character here. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw are likewise excellent, and Ellie Grainger, whose outfit makes her look like a marshmallow, is at turns spooky and hilarious as little sister Mercy. They basically undergo a visit to the petting zoo from hell in Eggers’ heady, low-budget affair, which earns its pretension to think big by getting big chills from next to nothing.