A film of deliberate pacing, painterly beauty and cold brutality, freshman director Robert Eggers' The Witch is a strange beast: a combination horror film and period piece that functions at the highest tier of both genres like a blood-soaked Merchant Ivory production that chills to the marrow.
But take heed: For those expecting this year's The Babadook or It Follows, turn back. This is a film of near impossible bleakness. If it's easy escapism or a stylistic rush you seek, do not head into these woods.
The titular witch—naked and haggard, watching early American settlers from the veiled forest—makes her presence known early, snatching an infant from his sister's unsuspecting arms for a ghastly ritual. It's another tragic turn of events for the child's family. Recently ostracized from their village for extreme Calvinist practices, the settlers have found themselves trapped at an infertile farm, where father William (Ralph Ineson) proves himself a master of the lord's word, but a novice at providing for his family.
The abduction of baby Samuel leaves the family weary of one another in their isolated homestead. Mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) alternates between crippling grief and accusatory rage toward daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose mischievous ways draw constant suspicion. Prepubescent Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) struggles with becoming a man while being tempted by his sister's impending womanhood. Meanwhile, the family's twin siblings Jonas and Mercy start getting suspiciously close with the resident goat, Black Phillip.
Naturally, suspicion of collusion with the devil rise amid panic over starvation and the missing infant. Yet which of the settlers might be wicked becomes less important than the mounting paranoia and violence, which includes one of the best possession sequences this side of Blatty and a heartbreaking and prolonged death that will stir even the most hardened soul.
Eggars drew much of his script from actual writings from the 1600s, adding a stark authenticity to slowly amplifying horrors, which are further exacerbated by a piercing and haunting score. Meanwhile, symmetrical cinematography and ominous, disorienting shots of the foreboding woods frame the film as a meticulous nightmare vision, as if The Shining-era Kubrick and Terrance Malick teamed up for storyboards.
That convergence of styles gives The Witch a sort of timeless feeling. This doesn't seem like a film of any particular era, but rather an American folk story come to life, a fable grimmer than Grimm, where children suffer the sins of their fathers and nothing is as it appears. It's nightmare fuel born in the fibers of American legend, a film sure to stick to you long after the ominous ending brings the macabre tale to a merciful end.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: The Witch is rated R. It opens Friday, Feb. 19.