The Witch Review: Prepare for the Deepy-Creepies – It's The Shining for Puritans!
02/19/2016 AT 10:15 AM EST
This story of an isolated Puritan family that comes unraveled in the wilderness is unsettling and scary, and certain images (including what would ordinarily be a perfectly innocuous rabbit) take on a damply sinister weight. But it's not a horror movie, or at least not something that a modern audience will experience as horror. It's closer to what you'd get if a Puritan had decided to make a movie to keep other Puritans scared straight and on the righteous path. At times it's like The Shining directed by Cotton Mather.
It's about how the Puritan imagination was fired up by faith, and then roasted to a crisp by terror of the devil.
That should be scary enough for anyone.
In fact, before seeing this film you should know that writer-director Robert Eggers researched records of the period, even using them to shape the dialogue. This will help your ear accept speech that can sound as wooden as anything in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, but that occasionally erupts with rich, ornate verbosity. A scene of demonic possession sounds less like Regan in The Exorcist than someone with an advanced degree in Protestant theology having a total nervous breakdown.
The film begins with patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), who looks like the world's most depressed pirate, banished from the Puritan colony for heretical stubbornness. He's certain of his religious convictions, which to the Puritans means that he suffers from pride. (They didn't have much truck with self-validation.) As The Witch proceeds to make terrifyingly clear, pride is indeed the deadliest sin. It is hell's tipping point.
William moves to a remote farm with his four children and his dour, pinch-faced wife (Kate Dickie, better known as that awful shrew who disappeared forever down the Moon Door in Game of Thrones). Their oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is given many of the duties of looking after her siblings. One gray afternoon –the afternoons are all gray – Thomasin is alone in a field, playing with her baby brother. The baby, impossibly, vanishes in the blink of an eye. The terrified family can only conclude that this is the work of the devil.
Although, if William and his wife should happen to allow themselves a few thoughts of rational doubt, might it not worry them that their daughter is the only witness? Might she be delusional or mentally ill?
Could this be Fight Club in a drab cotton dress?
No. The Witch quickly makes it clear that the baby has been snatched by a hooded figure and carried deep into the forest to be used in some sort of blood ritual or sacrifice. (Oddly enough, Zoolander 2 is also about a blood ritual, only involving a chubby, unpleasant boy. Anything involving a chubby, unpleasant boy, even a ritual sacrifice, is comedy gold.) These scenes are oblique, but it's apparent that something or someone awful is out in the woods, eager to wreak havoc on these settlers. And just getting started.
A son goes missing. The two younger children claim they can communicate with an ill-tempered goat named Black Phillip (who, by the way, has his own Twitter account, @BlackPhillip.) Thomasin, rather exasperated by the whole situation and prone to lose her temper, seems to her parents increasingly witch-like in her outbursts.
If they'd ever watched Anna Paquin on True Blood, they'd understand that what may seem like supernatural power is sometimes just a girl acting out. In that case, of course, New England would have been spared the Salem trials.
Pretty soon everything and everyone goes loco puritanis and the film lurches into a series of violent surprises and shocks before reaching an eerie point of dead calm. Then comes a coda of frightening mystery, a near-fairytale depiction of the bartering of souls and literal submission to the devil.
The last image will haunt you for some time.
Opens Friday, Feb. 16, rated R.