*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Robert Eggers
STARS Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch (Photo: A24)
One of the most memorable sequences in the otherwise much-ado-about-nothing revenge yarn The Revenant is the one which finds Leonardo DiCaprio's character getting savagely mauled by a bear. Yet even that grizzly comes across as only slightly more menacing than Yogi Bear when compared to Black Philip, the goat who proves to be a key character in the new horror opus The Witch.
Black Philip isn't the only animal who may or may not be a harbinger of evil — there's also a rabbit whose eyes are so freakishly penetrating that all visions of the laughable Night of the Lepus will be immediately exorcised from moviegoers' memories. And then there's Mother Nature, presented not as nurturer but as nightmare, at one with the Satanic emissary living deep within the bowels of the forest.
All of these elements combine to make The Witch another winner in the indie-horror sweepstakes, joining the likes of The Babadook and It Follows in its ability to establish an unsettling atmosphere of dread and not let up until the light once more breaks across the auditorium. Reminiscent of such past works as the superb 1996 film version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible and the astounding 1922 Swedish docudrama Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (formerly banned in the U.S. but now available on Criterion DVD), this confident undertaking by writer-director Robert Eggers (making his feature-film debut in both capacities) is set in 1630 New England, wherein a family of six is forced out of its community for some apparently minor indiscretion — it's never clearly stated, but it appears the head of the household, William (Ralph Ineson), was caught preaching without a license. The family relocates to a small cabin on the edge of a formidable forest, whereupon the baby is soon snatched by an elderly witch residing in the woods. No one actually sees the witch, but everyone in the family — William, wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), blossoming daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), curious son Caleb (William Scrimshaw), and bratty twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) — senses the evil all around them. They turn to their rigid Christian doctrine for strength, failing miserably to ever trust in — or turn to — each other. As a result, accusations of consorting with the devil fly fast and furious, with most of the fingers pointed at Thomasin.
More than just a terror tale, The Witch harbors several weighty themes, including the fear of the feminine mystique in a patriarchal society as well as the danger of placing too much faith in a puritanical belief without allowing other emotions an equal opportunity to breathe. These notions are punched across not only by Eggers' persuasive sense of time and place but by the forceful work of the entire cast (Taylor-Joy and Ineson are particularly impressive). It's just a shame the ending registers as a cop-out. Certainly, cases can (and will) be made that the finale is an inevitable conclusion to everything that has transpired up to that point, but to me, it feels facile, ignoring specific convictions and relationships for the sake of wrapping up with startling imagery. I can't say for sure whether the devil is in the details, but he doubtless had a hand in the clumsy climax.