The debut film for writer-director Robert Eggers, “The Witch,” a maybe-supernatural tale set in 1630 New England, is a slow-burning stack of dynamite. I’ve never had more of a feeling of WHY faith in God was so important to the early settlers of the Americas, or why they might have been so vulnerable to tales of witchcraft.
Not anymore. Based on actual documents, letters, writings, and folktales of the time, this is an arthouse film with genre sensibilities. Oh, yeah, it goes there…but you have to be willing to take the slow road.
It is the tale of a God-loving family, banished from their village due to religious differences, living on the edge of the wilderness…and of survival itself. All seems well, their faith and love for each other a bulwark against the unknown depths of the woods…and starvation itself, a very real threat for all but the strongest communities.
And then something goes very wrong, and over the next hour we watch this family slowly unravel, until the truth of the situation is finally revealed. To say more would be a disservice. What can be said is that the acting, directing, art direction (it all seems to be shot with natural light!), music and sound design are devastating. Wow. It creeps under your skin, especially the psychological shredding of the mother Kate Dickie and father Ralph Ineson, and a knock-out performance by the exquisite Anya Taylor-Joy as the eldest daughter.
Watch the mother’s smile as they rise from prayer upon giving thanks for the new land they have found, early in the film. Holy hell, man. THAT’S acting.
This is thoughtful, well-researched (beyond my capacity to judge, certainly. But the FEEL of authenticity is nearly absolute), and rewarding no matter how you choose to interpret the events and images. Terrific low-budget filmmaking, the very definition of proper use of imagination and resources. Highly recommended.