The Witch opens on a face. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teen-aged girl is staring forward with a delicate mixture of worry and disbelief as her family is drummed out of a community of the basis of religious views in combat. It is seventeenth century New England, and there is a bleakness to life. Mere existence is brutally hard, and the relentless fealty to God demanded by Thomasin’s parents, William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), doesn’t exactly lighten the existential load. The feature debut of writer-director Robert Eggers almost seems to begin with the question “What if we took Meek’s Cutoff and made it even more exhausting in its depiction of American pioneer life?” Then, once that path is established, how about fulling committing to the enveloping dread with some good old fashioned panic over the encroaching supernatural?
Even though the film’s resolutely deliberate pace across the first half or so can grow a touch too slow at times, this is also when The Witch is at its best, draw its conflict not from the obvious heightening of reality but instead through the furious suspicion that naturally arises from confrontations with the unknown. The main plot is set in motion when the family’s infant son goes missing while under Thomasin’s care, vanishing in the time it takes for her to briefly cover her eyes in a game of peek-a-boo. The collective anguish starts at a menacing simmer, but accusations and defensive cross-accusations are soon hurled with beanball intensity, the household’s fearful belief in all forms of devilry making the leaps into speculation of witchcraft firmly believable. In truth, there’s never much doubt that black arts are in play. Even still, the more Eggers wisely conceals overt clues, the better the film. The depiction of the tundra of vicious human paranoia is so strong that the inevitable moments where the fears prove founded can’t help but disappoint a bit, as if Arthur Miller added a heated coda to The Crucible suggesting that Reverend Parris might not have been so far off base after all.
Any disappointment in the story structure is minor, though, and tidily compensated for in the strong performances across the cast. Taylor-Joy is a true find, with an intriguing, expressive face and an obvious flair for sharp emotional pivots, both ideal for portraying a character trained into subservience and pushed to desperate self-preservation. She not matched but ably met by all others, especially Dickie, who demonstrates that playing one of the crazier characters on Game of Thrones is effective prep for taking on early American religious zealotry, and Harvey Scrimshaw, as Thomasin’s younger brother. Scrimshaw has one scene of grueling physicality so fantastic florid in its many peaks that it would have been appropriate to present him with some sort of athletic trophy at the end of it. Evidence abounds of similar commitment from everyone involved, putting The Witch squarely within the modern horror movie movement exemplified by The Babadook and It Follows. Just because there are loads of filmmakers who obviously view horror as a place to wallow for a quick buck or two doesn’t mean others can’t approach it more seriously. Art can be found anywhere, even on the edge of a spooky woods.