The Witch: A New-England Folktale is the debut feature of writer-director Robert Eggers, who goes to great lengths to present an accurate portrait of Puritan life in 1630 America. The social constructs, the speech patterns, and the animal imagery are reportedly spot on, so prepare yourself for grim people with an uncompromising belief system struggling to live up to the expectations of their God, while fighting off the forces of the Devil. Understand, while the film falls into the horror category, most of it is more creepy than scary. This is art house horror.
You will need to meet Eggers halfway if you want to get the most out of this experience. His film is paced deliberately, which is critic-speak for slow, which means you will need to be patient. Study the details of his meticulous production. Concentrate on the olde English speaking style, because it's easy to get lost if you're not paying attention.
Here's the story: More than 60 years before the Salem witch trials, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are exiled from a Puritan community. The reason isn't specified, the impression is that it's over a difference in interpreting their faith. The family ends up trying to build a new life on a field in the middle of nowhere.
William may know his Bible, but he's not very good at building, or tracking, or shooting. Wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) is faithful to the point of near-hysteria. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is their eldest daughter, a bright, assured teenager. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is a few years younger – he's just hitting puberty. Younger siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are an inseparable duo. There's a newborn child as well.
We learn that Dad and Mom traveled here from England. The transition from being part of a community to trying to scrape by on the family's makeshift farm is taking its toll on Mom. Dad's feeling what fathers feel when they can't provide enough for their families. Oh, and on top of the tension and growing weirdness, there appears to be a witch living in the woods.
Welcome to Little House on the Shining.
Eggers, whose work here was influenced by Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers, keeps the film's visuals firmly grounded, up until the moment when something awful happens and we see a sequence of events that don't make sense. From that point on, you will have to decide whether various images you see are examples of the supernatural or visualizations of psychosis.
I was fascinated watching the parents try to hold themselves and the family together as their world grows ever more horrific. Imagine devoting your life to a severely demanding religion, only to be evicted by your fellow believers and end up isolated, except possibly for a witch hiding in the woods ... or perhaps in your family.
Eggers' film is well cast. The actors playing the parents and the two eldest kids are very good, and the ones playing the younger pair remain credible throughout the proceedings. Mark Koven's score blends period music with electronic sounds. It's effective without being overwhelming.
The Witch was a hit at last year's Sundance Film Festival. I respect the film, but despite Eggers' best efforts, I had to fight off boredom at several points. I'm concerned that trailers for the movie will draw in a crowd expecting a much busier – and scarier – experience than the film provides. As I noted before, The Witch is more creepy than scary. And it's deliberate. As in slow.