The rare horror movie with such savage grace and conviction that it was endorsed by both the Sundance Film Festival and the Satanic Temple (whose spokeswoman impishly described it as the story of “an outsider who grabs persecution by the horns”), The Witch is one of the best tricks the devil has ever pulled. Billed as a “New England folktale” and grimmer than Grimm, Robert Eggers’ uncompromising directorial debut is a bracingly new experience that boils with the primordial fever of America’s original sins.
It’s a cold winter’s day in the 17th century, and a devout Puritan family is being banished from the New England plantation where they’ve lived since making the arduous trek across the ocean. The particulars of the conflict are left vague, but — as per American tradition — the tussle is at root a matter of religion. “I cannot be judged by false Christians, for I have done nothing but preach God’s true gospel,” the exiled patriarch croaks at his accusers. And so, 90 seconds into a film that never lingers on anything long enough for its audience to exhale, William (Game of Thrones actor Ralph Ineson, whose glorious voice sounds like it’s been scraped from the blood-soaked battlefields of Westeros) leads his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, also from Game of Thrones—she played creepy Lysa Arryn) and their five children into the wilderness beyond the village walls.
Hindsight being 20/20 and horror being horror, William probably should have resettled his family on the lip of a different forest. The trouble begins almost immediately, as teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the clan’s eldest daughter, loses a game of peek-a-boo with her baby brother—removing her hands from her eyes, the girl finds that the boy has vanished. Surely, Thomasin and her parents tell themselves, this must be the work of nature’s fastest wolf … but we know different. In an early and telling indication that we’re in the hands of a storyteller who’d rather delve into the woods than beat around the bush, Eggers quickly dispenses with any mystery as to what might have happened to the ill-fated infant: A gnarled hag, framed like the reverse shot of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, grinds the child into a pulpy lotion of blood and spreads it across her withered flesh.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Inspired by written accounts of historical witchcraft (a closing title card notes that much of the dialogue comes “directly from period journals, diaries, and court records”), The Witch establishes a terrific sense of authenticity—so that it can debase it with supernatural terrors. A former production designer with a meticulous eye for detail, Eggers creates a wholly cohesive world on a limited budget, his every flourish—like the careful thatch of a roof, or the Native Americans who drift into frame as William and his family are being carted away from civilization—helping to make this sliver of the 1600s feel as real to us as Satan does to the sorry characters who populate it.
Combining the rigorous severity of Stanley Kubrick with the fevered paranoia of The Crucible, Eggers directs this episode of pre-Salem hysteria with an unblinking formalism that makes every shot feel like it’s daring you to look closer. (Even the animals he casts are the most demonic nonhuman actors in recent memory.) His straight-faced commitment to his film’s central conceit would feel silly and self-important if it weren’t shared by his cast, and the fearless performances of Ineson and Dickie enflame our fears. (A line like “Did ye make some unholy bond with that goat?!” reads as inane in a review but in film’s steady gaze becomes both mordantly hilarious and horrifying.) William is a particularly tortured creation; as the patriarch’s Christian guilt dovetails with his failings as a father and his emasculation as a hunter, Ineson allows him to crumble with the care of a controlled demolition.
Still, for all that Ineson and Dickie and demonic goat Black Phillip bring to the show, it’s Taylor-Joy who comes to possess the movie as the movie comes to possess her. Revelatory in only her second role in a feature film (I assume you recall her first, “Feeder Girl” in Vampire Academy), the wide-eyed actress plays young Thomasin as a girl whose maturing body is as great a fount of evil as the woods outside her house. Oblivious to the lurid looks that her desperate brother casts at the lift of her blouse, Thomasin is nevertheless made to feel as though the devil lurks in her bones just as the witch resides in the forest, and when her father declares that his family “will conquer this wilderness,” it’s clear that his words are spiked with double meaning. The girl’s development is left discreet, but her sex is a consistent expression of original sin, and Taylor-Joy’s dizzying performance pushes Thomasin to recognize how she’s refracted through a male gaze and then spurs her to plot her escape from it. Perhaps, The Witch suggests, making women afraid to own their bodies is a sure route toward helping them recognize their power.
Witchcraft has long been a fertile topic for allegories about fear and persecution, but Eggers’ debut is unmistakably a product of the 21st century. In addition to how it sneers at fundamentalism of all stripes, the film’s focus on Thomasin makes it of a piece with so many great recent horror movies about women. From The Babadook, It Follows, and Trouble Every Day to recent festival sensations like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Eyes of My Mother, the genre’s most inspired new work has taken the characters who once would be victims and given them authority and agency, turning the tables on the men who take their power for granted. As the world continues to grapple with the patriarchal horrors visited upon women’s bodies, women’s rights, and women’s identities, we are drawn to stories in which they tap reservoirs of hidden strength and take the reins.
Toward the end, a certain character asks Thomasin a juicy question: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” It must be especially tempting to someone who’s never been allowed to taste anything good for herself. And yet The Witch, for all of its stoicism, eventually digs so deep into sinister seriousness that it burrows clean through the other side, ending up, during its giddy final 15 minutes, in a slap-happy place that most horror films don’t even know exists. It’s a place of rapture. Few horror movies have ever stared so intently into the darkness, and even fewer have ever found such compelling delights there.