Writer-director Robert Eggers makes a masterful feature debut with his chilling period horror fable, "The Witch." Boasting the subtitle "A New England Folk Tale," the film takes on the quality of a legend people of the 17th century might have told around a roaring fire; a grim lesson for their youngest generations to obey the word of their elders. The film chronicles the circumstances surrounding a family of Puritan settlers: William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children, banished from their New England settlement (we never learn the exact cause of this punishment, though we get the sense William isn't exactly against the decision). The family withdraws from the relative safety of civilization to strike out on their own, eventually settling on a stretch of land on the edge of a foreboding wood.
Completely isolated in an unfamiliar place, the cracks in the family's bond begin to show. Young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw, who is excellent) already has a close connection with his older sister, Thomasin (a phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy), but her budding womanhood has begun to stir lustful feelings within him -- certainly the work of the devil himself. William's desperation grows as winter nears and the soil refuses to yield a healthy crop. Meanwhile, mischievous twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) begin to claim that the family's he-goat, Black Phillip, has been whispering evil words to them. It all adds up to some rather tense conditions around the old homestead.
Then baby brother Samuel disappears while under Thomasin's watch -- though she'd only taken her eyes off him for an instant during a game of peekaboo -- and things really start to go sideways. It doesn't take much to fan the flames of suspicion and the family rips apart at the seams amid a flurry of accusations and recriminations, largely directed at young Thomasin. Periodically, we get glimpses of the grisly activities carried out by a mysterious figure living deep in the woods, which may or may not be the imagined supernatural fears of the family made flesh.
Eggers ambitiously strives for period authenticity in costuming, production design, and most notably, dialect (a postscript tells us that much of the film's archaic dialogue was drawn directly from 17th-century documents, stories, and diaries). In combination with the thick English accents, the dense language sometimes makes dialogue difficult to understand -- I had trouble with Ineson's throaty rumble in particular -- though the general meaning always remains clear. He cultivates an unnerving mood of barely contained repression that gradually bubbles over into religious hysteria and paranoia. Unlike "The Crucible," this isn't meant to be taken as a parable for contemporary society, though Eggers touches on evergreen issues such as our culture's fear of female sexuality and the darker effects of religious fundamentalism.
"The Witch" drops us in a period (decades before the witch trials of Salem) when society turned to superstition and religion to find meaning in the frightening unknown. Puritanical threats of eternal damnation and everlasting hellfire lead the population to be consumed with a need to atone for their sinful natures, and the setting envelopes us in an atmosphere that's ripe with religious fervor -- one which only builds in intensity.
JarinBlaschke's stark, oppressively gloomy cinematography uses natural lighting to create a striking visual style (though Black Phillip help anyone who watches the movie at a theater that makes a habit of dimming its projector bulbs -- with all the film's inky black shadows, you're bound to miss a great deal). The insistent score from Mark Korven adds to the feeling of dread; a howling, wordless female choir isn't just thematically appropriate, it also keeps us constantly on edge. Feeling like an instant classic of the horror genre, "The Witch" marks Robert Eggers as a major talent. Its larger aspirations may make it a tougher sell to the multiplex crowds, but in skillfully weaving historical authenticity with spine-tingling genre thrills, it takes its place as the year's first great film.