Expelled by choice from a Puritan plantation for his hubristic insistence that his own preaching is the one right way to God, William and his family—wife Catherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, twins Mercy and Jonas, and a suckling baby—go singing through the palisade’s gate and beyond the pale to establish their own farmstead in the New England wilderness, near to a stream and a dark and ancient wood. The wood, issuing ominous cracks, groans, and whooshes (and for our private pleasure a madly dissonant, crescendoing, Kubrickian chorus), may or may not be inhabited by a red-cloaked witch, a half-seen hag whose need for fresh baby’s blood initiates a season of bedevilment that drives the family to grief, near-starvation, and all manner of strife.
“We will conquer this wilderness,” William insists, meaning equally that, guided by their idiosyncratic, relentlessly self-punishing fundamentalism, they will conquer themselves and each other as their collective fortunes decline. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), wide- and wet-eyed during The Witch‘s opening trial scene as she watches three male judges pass the family’s sentence, provides the first and lasting image of their collective fear of a lawgiving God. But this fear can’t hold off the realities of their human needs and desires, evidence, for them, of sin and witchery, though we understand them as the internal emotional conflicts essential to the human experience. Thomasin and Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) are old enough to understand the sensual attractions of other bodies, which become even more fraught because options for partners have dwindled to family. William (Ralph Ineson with an exquisitely sonorous, Old Testament voice) is prepared to dissemble for a time in order to get the family fed without upsetting his wife (Kate Dickie), and the twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), too young to know better and too free-spirited to honor distinctions between their fictions and reality, can, as an instinctual team, turn any accusation of wrongdoing into truth for their paranoid audience. Are they witches in league with their favorite playmate, the family’s he-goat, Black Philip? Or is Thomasin the source of their ills, the teenager, the young woman, a potential sexual rival of her mother’s or a perfect mate for Old Scratch? Though her parents may be convinced her behavior is alien and evil, we recognize her response to this suffocating environment as perfectly natural.
Which is to say that The Witch of this stunning film’s title may be more an idea, more a suspicion, more an accusation than the actual figure we glimpse through the trees. But we can never be certain as director Robert Eggers expertly produces, through rich image and provocative editing, a frighteningly closed vision of 17th century America, a beautifully raw and insecure place in the eyes and ears of these desperate and isolated European immigrants (the family’s English accents mark them as still-recent arrivals). The Witch is a period film whose authenticity is one of mind, then, rather than objective fact, and these minds’ paranoia, faith in a punishing God, and inherent will to survive at any cost produce a deeply authentic, spellbinding, and rewarding experience.