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.
It’s clear what first-timer Robert Eggers is doing, even without him elucidating upon it in interviews: He’s imagining an alternate history in which the fears of the past — at least the supernatural ones — are real. At the same time he’s commenting on today, at a time when women’s actions are still perceived as mysterious and in need of controlling, and when even pointing out that 51 percent of the population is paid unequally is a controversial statement. At the same time — as if the film weren’t impressive already — Eggers doesn’t overplay this. This is a salvo but not a message-mongerer, and it even finds deep empathy for people whose times and beliefs have hobbled their more humane instincts.
There’s one potential blemish, of sorts: Whether “The Witch” is product that will cross over into the nation’s googolplexes is up in the air. Even in its purpler moments — poison apples being coughed up, the freakiest goat since Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” — “The Witch” stays earthbound and deceptively tasteful. Despite its fine (OK, perfect) use of off-screen space, which creates tension inside unusually narrow frames, it could regularly pass for a Bergman film (or, with its use of night scene lit only by candles, “Barry Lyndon”). This is no tossed-off scare machine, despite being dropped into theaters early in the year. Eggers treated it with no less authority than the Daniel Day-Lewis “The Crucible”: The natty clothes were recreated through exhaustive research, and the cabin in the woods was built using era-specific materials. It’s horror by way of an indie prestige picture.
If “The Witch” may be too rarified for the midnight movie masses, that’s great for some of us, who like when films like this deny us certain (though by no means all) base pleasures. “The Witch” keeps some of its frights off-screen and goes with a finale that’s more a mad vision than a blood-lusty capper. Even its few token “boo!” moments are organic to the story, because only a film that’s less than perfect would settle for merely making us jump. Everything about it, front to end, is wisely and uniquely judged, so much so that even writing about it seems redundant. “The Witch” doesn’t have the deep riches of certain less perfect films; what you see is what you get. But in this case what you get is a nightmare projected onto a giant screen, and one whose vibe, at least, takes time to shake off, if it ever wholly gets off you at all.