Director: Robert Eggers
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson
4 (out of 5) Globes
For a horror number about dirt and grime and hunger and gnarly monsters who can maybe transform into rabbits, “The Witch” is very clean. That is to say: It’s a perfectly calibrated (and generally perfect) feature debut from a director who got exactly what he wanted. All one can do is admire it — and of course, occasionally jump and routinely have nerves peerlessly jangled. If it weren’t legitimately creepy it’d be like the overachieving Poindexter from your elementary school who was reading Orwell while you were still stuck on Beverly Cleary, although maybe not as scary.
Set amongst America’s first Puritans in 1630, it charts a family who are banished by their insufficiently pious brethren. They hightail it to the edge of a forest, where the corn is rotted and the only way to pass the time is angrily chopping wood. One day the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, in an of course justly revered breakthrough), is playing with the newborn. In between peek-a-boos, he’s gone. At this point any other film would tease us with ambiguity: Was he really absconded by some supernatural beastie? Or is there a logical explanation? Not in this film: In a parade of blood-curdling disconnected images, we see him taken back to a witch’s lair, whose grungy inhabitant bathes in his blood.
Revealing the awful truth in the first act is a smart outside-the-box move in a film that is never less than smart and outside-the-box. Our Puritan heroes aren’t as successful; even when they’re right they’re wrong. After correctly blaming their troubles on a beastie, the family, one by one, turns on the pubescent Thomasin, accusing her of being in league with evil. Though he tries to be their gruff rock, the patchily bearded patriarch (Ralph Ineson, who’s apparently on “Game of Thrones” but will always, to some of us, be the disreputable bro Chris “Finchy” Finch on the original “The Office”) can’t help but join in on the blame game. Soon religious and gender hysteria have exacerbated a problem that already involved a psychotic, shape-shifting entity with gross hair.