PLOT In Colonial New England, a troubled family suspects one of its own is a witch.
CAST Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw
RATED R (gruesome imagery and nudity)
BOTTOM LINE An unsettling journey back to a time when Satan seemed much closer to our world.
Sin, misfortune and mere human weakness become indistinguishable in “The Witch,” a beautifully crafted and highly unnerving horror-drama from first-time director Robert Eggers. Calling itself a “New England Folktale,” the movie introduces us to an early American family whose banishment from their colony leads them into a wilderness that is both symbolic and real.
As they set up a new house, the family numbers seven, though not for long. Ralph Ineson plays William, the patriarch whose religious zeal was apparently too strong for his community (which is saying something). His wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), seems a stalwart sort, but her strength is tested by a series of terrible events. One is the inexplicable disappearance of her newborn — poof! — whilst under the care of the oldest daughter, Tomasin (a mesmerizing Anya Taylor-Joy). It’s the first sign that something is preying on this already troubled family.
Tomasin is our heroine. She’s a blond beauty whose ripening body does not go unnoticed by her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw, who delivers an astonishing performance in a crucial scene) and whose innate goodness puts her flawed father to shame. As the crops fail and tensions mount (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson play twins of unbearable brattiness), Tomasin finds all eyes turning suspiciously to her. She’s never heard of Salem, but she instinctively grasps that this is a desperate situation.
It will be interesting to see how “The Witch,” with its authentic period dialogue, rich detail and primal symbolism will fare with audiences, particularly younger ones for whom the horror genre means lighthearted spookfests like “Paranormal Activity” or grisly fare like the “Sinister” flicks. That stuff can be good for a few jolts, but there’s a difference between what’s scary and what’s truly horrifying. The former category includes loud noises and flickering lights; the latter includes the unthinkable, the incomprehensible. Like, say, living in the middle of nowhere with parents who might want to kill you.
The film’s enigmatic ending is too strange and unexpected to spoil here. “The Witch” is the rare horror movie that will keep troubling you even when you’re back out in the daylight.