By Richard von Busack
It may not be doing Robert Eggers’ The Witch a favor to describe it as a terrifying movie. It’s an elegantly moody horror film, more substantial than scary. Eggers’ drama shows a 1630s family in colonial Massachusetts turning against itself. The possibility of reasonable explanations fade, as the supernatural becomes natural.
It begins with a shunning; a family of six exiled from the Plimoth [apparently how it was spelled back then] Plantation for religious non-conformity. A horse-drawn wagon loads them out of the town and into new pastures. The refuge lasts a short blissful while. One afternoon, the 13-ish Thomasin (the uncanny Anya Taylor-Joy) plays peekaboo with her infant sister. When her eyes are covered for a second, the baby vanishes. Eggers cuts to a crone’s sagging arm, satanically blessing the nude baby with a knife.
The pious but rational father William (Ralph Ineson) believes that a wolf snatched his child. He deals with the sorrow of his grieving spouse (Kate Dickie). Omens of trouble multiply, as do subtle incestuous tensions. When William and his eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) go hunting, they see an unafraid wild rabbit standing its ground, like a rutting March Hare in October. Lost in the woods, Caleb encounters a beautiful, red-caped woman, and afterwards he returns to the farm babbling and without his clothes, just as his father describes him: “Pale as death, naked as sin, and witched.”
One warning: It’s said that an English speaker of today, traveling back in time, could only understand conversations if they went back no earlier than the Shakespearean era. Shakespeare hadn’t been long dead in 1630—the script is full of authentic dialogue that one strains to understand. (If English subtitling on an English language film is good enough for Ken Loach, maybe it would have been good enough for The Witch.) Still, Eggers has a terrific eye for the past. He takes an elegantly simple approach to his compositions and uses candlelight illumination that reminds you of the French painter Georges de La Tour. It’s as tangible a vision of the 1600s as you see in one of the last films made in this era, Terrence Malick’s The New World.