3 1/2 stars
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Running time: 92 minutes
Rated: R for disturbing, bloody violence and graphic nudity.
You might expect that a film titled "The Witch" is giving away the game from the start. How wrong you might be.
This uncommonly strange, superlatively foreboding folk tale is full of surprises, beginning with the remarkable sophistication of its writer/director Robert Eggers. In his feature debut he plunges us into an eerie world both nightmarish and credible. One often enters the theater hoping to discover an innovative talent who could be "one to watch" or "the next big thing."
Wait no longer, Eggers has arrived.
Set in 1630 New England, the film visits exotic territory not well-mined in film. It explores the chilly Puritan logic that sparked Salem's stake-burning witch trials, as God-fearing people began to fear one another.
Prosecuted by town leaders for incorrect interpretation of Christian doctrine, a colonist named William (Ralph Ineson), his dutiful wife, Katherine (Kate Dickey), and their five children are expelled. Leaving a settlement resembling the original Plymouth colony, they must live apart in a small farm a day's horse ride distant. Eggers' unbroken long shot of their wagon ride toward that unknown destination inspires anxiety, digging high tension from understated drama. The family's male goat Black Peter, an iconic rebel figure from the Gospel of St. Matthew through supernatural lore, looks like he could lead the clan to the darkest places in this pagan land.
William leads the family in their prayers, guides them through their chores and follows the farming practices of the time. "We will conquer this wilderness," he promises. "It will not consume us."
But each effort is an exercise in futility. Plants rot on the vine, illness strikes, William's mounting ire makes him drive his ax into wood like an executioner. Unspoken emotional challenges travel throughout the candlelit cabin.
Middle child Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is entering puberty and beginning to question his father's decisions. For Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest, the onset of womanhood and independent confidence battle her devout nature. When she declares herself a witch to silence her aggressive young sister, the prank triggers disturbing consequences.
With its script largely drawn from documents of the period, Eggers goes to remarkable lengths to create a fantasy that is scrupulously accurate to its age. In one area, he goes too far. The cast speak in English accents appropriate to the time, but their formal discourse and rich pronunciation are at times difficult to follow. Luckily, the film's dazzling cinematography is powerful enough to carry key scenes where speech is less illuminating. Even when it is nearly wordless, it remains hypnotic.
Where else have you seen a close-up portrait shot of a rabbit look like a spawn of Lucifer?
Is "The Witch" a parable on fundamentalist hysteria or a devout warning against abandoning faith? It hardly matters. The dissonant musical soundtrack by composer Mark Korven and its gloomy natural lighting make each sequence electrify the imagination while maintaining an atmosphere of mystery. In whatever direction, it will scare the bejeezus out of you.