THE WITCH: A New England Folk Tale made an auspicious feature debut for screenwriter & director Robert Eggers, 32, who’d previously worked on shorts, chiefly as production designer, art director and costumer. His low-budget critical and popular hit from 2015 gave actress Anya Taylor-Joy, 18, her first feature credit as well, in the lead role of the elder daughter of a horror-beset Puritan family in the 1630s New England wilderness.
Exactingly devout ‘William’ (Ralph Ineson), wife ‘Katherine’ (Kate Dickie) and their five young children are banished from their strict Puritan plantation community, and must attempt to go it alone on an isolated clearing at the edge of the dark and yawning forest. After their baby is abducted—they think by a wolf, and through the carelessness of oldest daughter ‘Thomasine’ (Taylor-Joy)—events of seemingly demonic nature steadily mount, and the family begins to disintegrate. Their fervent faith proves useless as a shield. Who— or what— is to blame?
“Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” When a black ram (‘Black Philip’) says this to you, time to find pa’s blunderbuss.
On a scratch budget of just $4,000,000, Eggers and team give the intimate production the rich, lived-in look of a much more expensive effort, thanks to scrupulous detailing of sets and costumes and in the superb natural-light cinematography from Jarin Blaschke. Eggers exactingly authentic dialogue rings dead true to cadence, period and attitude, his writing inspired by poring through folklore, fairytales and contemporaneous written accounts of historical witchcraft from diaries, journals, and court records. Much of the dialogue came directly from these period sources. The “witch-talk” was lifted from Enochian, an angelic/occult language of the 16th century.
The cast are faultless. It’s a virtuoso star-making performance from Taylor-Joy; innocent and playful, sensual and hurt, cutting and certain. As the pious father, Ineson’s physical stature, imposing visage and distinctive voice convey spiritual determination undercut with circumstantial impotence and sundered ideals. Mother Katherine becomes hysterical, son ‘Caleb’ (Harvey Scrimshaw) is stricken, twins ‘Mercy’ and ‘Jonas’ (Ellie Granger, Lucas Dawson) caper madly. Within the iron bands of Deity devotion are rising currents of human frailty. Feeding on that is whatever may lurk in those sighing, trackless woods.
Intelligent, and measured in pace, it may be too wordy or slow for those in the audience who are, well, slow and word-deprived. Their loss. There are some grisly moments, but no intrusion of cheap trope jolts to cheat the buildup. A convincing atmosphere of claustrophobic isolation, creeping dread and implacable menace is what really pulls this to its properly horrific, unsettling, rewarding finale.
Compact at 92 minutes, it earned strong reviews and took in a devil-spawned ten times its cost, grossing $40,400,000, ensuring Eggers a career path to keep an eye on. Shot near Mattawa, Ontario. Australian model Sarah Stephens is the fatally seductive young witch. On casting acumen: we’re used to ravens or crows as spooky, but you know you’re in superstition No Man’s Land when you’re disturbed by the site and gaze of a hare or a goat. You’ve been warned, sinners….