The Witch ✮✮✮✮
Day of Wrath
by Glenn Lovell
Yes, the Devil made them do it in this moody little shocker. But not to worry, the satanic entity found herein doesn’t slither forth from a sulfurous sinkhole in the basement; he/it is nothing like the head-spinning, pea soup-spewing, cat’s-eye variety that haunts “The Exorcist” and “The Evil Dead.”
Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is much too smart to recycle a Central Casting Lucifer. Rather than Dennis Wheatley or William Peter Blatty, this brooding tale of 17th Century possession takes as its inspiration the folklore and journals of the period, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Marion Starkey’s nonfiction “The Devil in Massachusetts.” It also conjures memories of Arthur Miller’s allegorical attack on McCarthyism, “The Crucible.”
The strange happenings can, for the most part, be traced to the evil that we visit upon ourselves. In other words, they’re more psychological than supernatural or paranormal. They’re the stuff of isolation, guilt, religious fanaticism, sexual frustration, and the mass hysteria caused by same. And because they can be explained away, they’re all the more disturbing.
We’re in colonial New England, circa 1630. William (Ralph Ineson), wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children — newly arrived from England — have been banished to the wilderness because of William’s overzealous proselytizing. Their new homestead is bordered by a forest every bit as dark and foreboding as any imagined by the Brothers Grimm. So we’re not at all surprised when the youngest of the brood, a baby boy named Samuel, is carried off into the thicket. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest, and her three siblings say it’s the work of a witchy hag in red cloak; the parents, at least at first, blame a ravenous wolf.
“We will conquer this evil wilderness; it will not consume us,” vows William.
The mounting signs say otherwise. The harvest is a bust; a family heirloom disappears; a dog is found disemboweled. And a large brown hare, nose forever twitching, appears to lie in wait, studying the family. Is this Beelzebub in one of his many incarnations?
And then, while out hunting, son Caleb is separated from his father …
An award-winner at Sundance, “The Witch” lives up to its advance hype. The stunning chiaroscuro cinematography is by Jarin Blaschke, who, obviously inspired by Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” uses only natural light to illuminate his cabin interiors; the costumes and detailed production design by Linda Muir and Craig Lathrop give off the musty smell of museum artifacts; and the cacophonous, at times choral-enhanced music by Mark Korven keeps us squirming throughout.
Eggers, here making his directorial debut, is obviously a talent to watch. His approach is at once studied and rapturous, and his groupings conjure both Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath” and the Renaissance woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer.
UK actors Ineson and Dickie, cast as much for their severe Old World looks as their strong presences, are first-rate as the parents who harbor doubts about each other as well as their children; Taylor-Joy, who resembles the teenage Saoirse Ronan, keeps us guessing about her part in it all. Is she victim or vixen?
Thomasin proclaims, “I am no witch, father” — even as she appears to enter into a covenant with Black Phillip, the farm’s imperious ram who, captured in glaring closeup, soon horns his way into our troubled subconscious.
THE WITCH ✮✮✮✮ With Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw. Written, directed by Robert Eggers. 92 min. Rated R (for violence, nudity — will be too intense for most children)