Lacking stars, a big-name director, or a controversial, hot-take-y premise, Robert Eggers’s The Witch was not a buzzed-about title coming into Sundance. But thanks partly to an overflowing press screening Friday morning (and a hastily assembled, similarly packed second one later that night), this film — a horror movie set in 1600s New England — has become one of the festival’s early breakout titles. The hype is not unwarranted. The Witch is a very tense, frightening movie that places you firmly in the world of early Puritan settlers — a place of terrors both imagined and real, where freedom is a concept more paralyzing than repression and abasement.
“What went we off in this wilderness to find, leaving our kindred behind, our country, our fathers’ houses? … Was it not to the pure and faithful imagination of the glories of God?” These are the first words spoken in The Witch, and the dialogue remains at this level; a title at the end notes that much of it was taken from contemporaneous records. This establishes a certain period authenticity, but it does more than that: It puts us in the minds of these people. Slowly, their superstitions and fears become our own.
The film follows an extremely devout family as they’re banished from their plantation and settle at the edge of a dark, untouched forest. Upon their arrival, they pray for their good fortune, even as the dense, pitch-black woods beckon more with terror than wonder. That forest remains eerily present throughout the film, always lurking in the background — a blank canvas upon which this family’s innermost fears can play out. Young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw, fantastic) is starting to have lustful feelings for his sister Thomison (Anya Taylor-Joy, beyond fantastic), while the two twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) claim to commune with the family’s black he-goat, Black Philip. Secretly, Thomison confesses her sins to God, saying she knows that she deserves only misery and damnation and that she’s broken all his laws, but asking for mercy regardless. No such luck: The very next scene, we see her taking her baby brother, Samuel, out to the edge of the woods and losing him by accident.
As the miseries and mysteries pile up, the family becomes consumed by pious anger and recrimination. Meanwhile, the film dances between suggested horror and grisly, possibly fantastical visions. (Are those gruesome cutaways to a naked, withered figure doing horrible things out in the woods meant to be imaginary?) Eggers has borrowed a page — maybe even a little more — from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and he uses tense, atonal, howling music and sustained, slow zooms to keep us on the edge about what exactly we’re witnessing. In doing so, he mires us in a kind of wonderfully agonizing uncertainty. These people live in a world where even the simplest thing is filled with mystery and terror. As we watch The Witch, and maybe even for a while afterward, we’re in that world with them.