Rating in Stars: *** (out of ****)
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger
Director: Robert Eggers
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity)
Running Time: 1:33
Release Date: 02/19 (limited)
In its most sinister form, religious fundamentalism can look a lot like its complete reverse, or so says The Witch, an unnerving and effective look at the blurred lines between such a religious persuasion and that of Satanic paganism. The film’s screenplay, written by director Robert Eggers, purports to have gained a lot of momentum from writings in the era in which it is set (the 1630s). The dialogue takes on the Early Modern English dialect of the setting (New England), and the actors perform it with the sincerity of a stage production of something written by Shakespeare. The film is also positioned, rather awkwardly, as studio horror, which it is pretty firmly not for at least 85 of its 93 minutes.
Instead, we have about 45 minutes of build-up to a chamber drama that happens to sometimes take place outdoors. The central characters are the members of a close-knit, Christian family. William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are the mother and father, whose strict control of their children is clearly a loving and not abusive attribute of their relationship with them. The elder daughter is the hard-working Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), after whom her prepubescent, hormonal brother, eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), yearns in a way that speaks fairly openly about the confined nature of their tiny, household society, and there are a couple of adorable twins, too, named Mercy and Jonas (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger).
Katherine has just given birth to another son, who goes missing during an innocent game of peek-a-boo with Thomasin. Evil forces are at work on this piece of land owned by the family, and they do their damnedest to try and ward off those demonic spirits to whom they are merely seven more victims. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke appoint a suffocatinguse of natural light to the proceedings, which fits well with their oppressive grimness. The film has drawn comparisons in the critical community with the work of Ingmar Bergman, and the film’s insular nature certainly gives those comparisons some weight, especially in the climax that proceeds the baffling final moments.
Those final moments, by the way, offer a kind of black-and-white choice and disturbing sort of sacrifice that feel at odds with the calmer cautionary tale that proceeded them but no matter. The film does quite the job of building the kind of tension that can’t be cut with the proverbial knife, and those performances, kept on that knife’s edge, are an enormous part of this. Not a single cast member here lets the material down, even the younger ones (Scrimshaw is particularly effective during a possession sequence), though Taylor-Joy is very good as Thomasin, whose innocence is quickly corroded by the penetrating forces surrounding her.
Before that baffling final few minutes, the film takes on the patience of an old-school thriller from the 1970s (to be specific, it feels like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, especially in how it all seems to lead up to those final shocking moments, though they were more suggestive in the earlier picture). It’s a considerable achievement of craft and performance in holy matrimony that occasionally outshines a script that isn’t exactly stretching the boundaries of its central thesis. Luckily that theme is striking enough that crafty effort is all it needs to work. The Witch reciprocates the effort with frightening precision.