The essence of “The Witch” is below the surface, just like the fears and anxieties that rattle around our subconscious despite rational evidence to the contrary.
It is not a routine don’t-go-in-the-basement or -woods-style horror tale, its perhaps misleading title aside. Rather the Sundance Film Festival award winner finds its escalating tension in the unknowable.
This portrait of how superstition and conspiracy is used explain away anything people don’t understand is set at a time when not much was understood.
It is experienced through the microcosm of a 17th century Puritan family that interprets traumatic events through the prism of an unforgiving belief system enforced by stern patriarch, played by Ralph Ineson of “Game of Thrones.”
He is so Old Testament the family is expelled from their community for their beliefs and builds a homestead on the edge of a forbidding forest.
But after animals are mutilated and a baby goes missing the family unit crumbles. And it is all downhill once two trouble-making young siblings accuse their apple-cheeked pubescent teenage sister, played by Anna Taylor-Joy, of being a witch.
The screenplay by Sundance award-winning director Robert Eggers is based on accounts from the era and the dialogue, spoken in a thick period burr, is drawn directly from them.
In portraying literally, visually and graphically what was believed to have occurred – a crow nursing at a woman’s breast, a cow giving blood instead of milk – he gives form and face to things that go bump in the night in ways that genre fans will recognize.
But such events are explained in retrospect as a trick of the mind, as the hysteria, madness, hallucination or group think that can consume otherwise reasonable people in times of chaos.
Insert reference to the current political season here.
*** Three stars
With Anna Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw. Produced by Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodie Redmond, Jay Van Hoy. Written and directed by Robert Eggers. Rated R: violence, nudity. Approximate running time: 90 minutesTags: Sundance, The Witch Posted by