In Robert Eggers' The Witch — stylized as The VVitch because, as any black-metal adherent knows, V is the most sinister letter in the alphabet — evil is no less real than a rabbit scampering through the woods. In fact, it might even be that rabbit. The toast of last year's Sundance Film Festival is set in 1630s New England, where a family of Puritans unravels after their newborn goes missing in the middle of a game of peek-a-boo.
To call the film's heroine a latter-day Abigail Williams wouldn't quite be accurate, as The Witch is set some 60 years before the Salem witch trials took place. It isn't clear whether adolescent Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) or anyone else has been cavorting with the eponymous conjurer, but Eggers is unambiguous as to whether or not his witch exists. From early on it's clear that the question isn't if she'll reveal herself, but when.
Anya and the rest of Eggers' characters speak in a high, period-appropriate register, defiantly asking questions like "What went we out into this wilderness to find?" as their village elders banish the family to the outer dark for unspecified transgressions. As a post-film title card assures us, much of this Early Modern English was sourced directly from journals and other records from the era. It may prove distracting at first, but the cast owns it in a way that compels you to nod along as the father refers to his ailing son as "witched." Ralph Ineson's gravelly delivery of such lines makes clear his status as the family patriarch. When he speaks, you listen.
These words are complemented by eerie sound design that bleeds into the score, all high-pitched hums and faraway chants. Mark Korven's music is heavy on dissonant strings and other instruments of foreboding malaise; The Witch wouldn't be nearly as unnerving were it not for his soundscapes. This is the horror movie as mood piece, entirely devoid of jump scares and other cheap tricks. When things get so quiet you can hear your quickened heartbeat, it isn't just so a contorted face can appear from the shadows and break the silence. Eggers luxuriates in the moments between scares so much that they become scares themselves; The Witch has nerve-jangling atmosphere to spare.
The clan consists of four children (five including the missing newborn) and a number of animals, among them an imposing goat named Black Philip. Mercy and Jonas, the two youngest, dance around the ram singing songs that are creepy in a way only children's games can be: Never is the line between malevolent and playful so porous as when coming out of the mouths of babes.
The children fear their parents, whose pious strictness they don't fully understand, while mother and father fear their children's impressionable corruptibility; all of them fear the forces beyond their control, which is to say: everything beyond their door. The natural world is harsh and only sometimes fertile. God is angry. All of them were born sinners in a battle for their own salvation.
Shortly after their exile, the family of seven look out at the woods as they drop to their knees and pray. They don't know it yet, but something may well be out there chanting an incantation of its own, daring these new residents to wander into its domain — and if they don't, it'll come to them.
As elementally terrifying as the unknown is, it's nothing compared to having your worst suspicions and most deeply held beliefs — that evil not only exists but is waiting for you — confirmed. We fear such things because they're unnatural, a perversion of everything we know to be true about the world. The Witch renders them even more horrifying by suggesting that they are natural — that witches and spirits have been here all along, even if it takes some of us longer to come into contact with them than others.
Directed by Robert Eggers
Area theaters, opens Friday