Writer-director Robert Eggers’ psychological horror film The Witch takes place in 1630, among the earliest settlers of New England. There, a family of immigrant Puritans, headed by father William (Ralph Ineson), is banished from the small settlement, and heads out into the wilderness. They establish a hardscrabble farm on the edge of the woods, but all is not well for William, his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie, from Game of Thrones), and their five children. There is a tragedy of mysterious circumstances, the crops fail and winter is coming.
Living in isolation, the family fractures and its members grow variously mad, fearful, resentful and angry. The two eldest children — Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) — venture, against orders, into the woods, which do indeed prove terrifying.
Eggers’s film is a slow-burner, full of tension, long silences and bleak scenery, with its horror by way of human frailty more than jump-scares. The actors easily sell this intense tale, even through confusing old-style English; Taylor-Joy is particularly good as the focal point of the family’s anxieties.
The film’s credits note that the story is adapted from period myths and fables. From our perspective, one can imagine how easily the privation and isolation of such settlements — already steeped in religious myth — could conjure the supernatural. It’s here that the individual, stripped of traditional support systems (family, community, the comfort of religion), proves ill-equipped to deal with the new world and whatever terrors it harbors.
Is there really a supernatural evil force lurking in the woods? The film gives credence that there is, but there is also a fair argument that any such witch is just a convenient manifestation — a comprehensible vessel to contain and explain all the awfulness of this life.
After such a lengthy and intriguing build-up, I’m not quite sure that The Witch sticks the landing in its last few minutes, but that wasn’t a deal-breaker for me. The preceding 85 minutes of dread, creepy woods and people losing their minds is a decent horror-film experience.