Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex 4/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
Exodus 22:18 KJV
When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.
Deuteronomy 18:9-11 KJV
Thine hand shall find out all thine enemies: thy right hand shall find out those that hate thee. Thou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger: the Lord shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them. Their fruit shalt thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men.
Psalm 21:8-10 KJV
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
1 John 4:8 KJV
Director-writer Robert Eggers’ “New England folk tale” is set in a small New England farming community in 1630. Although the Puritans came to the New World to escape the religious tyranny of the Established Church in England, we see in the first scene that their narrow vision has created a new, equally tyrannical society. William (Ralph Ineson), the patriarch of a Puritan family, has apparently been disagreeing with the doctrines of the leaders, and now at his trial they sentence him and his family to be cast out. Unrepentant, he declares that the others are “false Christians.” We are not told what it is that he takes issue with; this is similar to the case in 1638 in which Anne Hutchison and her family were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for her beliefs and practices (the latter including her daring to teach a Bible class which included men).
And so William packs his meager possessions and family and sets forth into the foreboding wilderness. The family includes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), adolescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), slightly younger son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and the infant Samuel. After some days of travel they arrive at a cleared spot and start farming anew at the edge of the forest.
As the oldest Thomasin has to help look after little Samuel, as well as tend to many chores such as milking their cow and trying to keep the boisterous twins in hand. Mercy and Jonas play games with a large black goat that they named Black Phillip and enjoy getting on their older sister’s nerves. While playing peek-a-boo with Samuel, the infant mysteriously disappears during the brief moment when Thomasin closes her eyes. She and William search the forest but cannot find the baby.
Was it a wolf that snatched the child—or something else? We see a brief glimpse of the infant and a female performing some kind of a blood rite over him, but it is so fleeting that it is not clear if this is reality or the fantasy of the highly distraught Katherine and William. She blames her daughter for the disappearance, despite Thomasin’s protestations. Her hysteria is enhanced because the baby had not been baptized, and so for her he is not just lost to them but damned for eternity.
The family’s fortunes continue to spiral downward as distrust spreads among parents and children. Thomasin overhears her father and mother discussing the possibility of giving her over to the care of someone else because of the shortage of food. The twins accuse Thomasin of being a witch, a charge their mother increasingly believes to be true. Their crops are failing, and there is no community to help them stave off starvation during the winter. Katherine is convinced that Thomasin is the cause of all their troubles. Sex is also an issue, with Caleb’s curiosity (and more) aroused by Thomasin’s developing body. A stouthearted boy who enters the forest to hunt for animals to feed the family, he becomes lost, eventually returning half naked and ill. William was at first more forgiving toward his daughter, but then…and the “then” includes Black Phillip, well named because a goat in some folklore is a symbol of the devil.
The last scene of the film is as mysterious as the brief one involving the infant Samuel, and will leave you wondering what is reality and what is hysterical fantasy. Viewers will be divided over whether this is a rationalist, psychological tale or a supernatural one. The excellent cast, supported by Mark Korven’s unsettling score, convinces the audience that what is happening on the screen is real—even if that reality is beyond explanation.
This is definitely not a “feel good” movie with its examination of the effects of a patriarchal religion centered on a vengeful God. (Nor is it suitable for children, this being on of the most chilling horror stories I have seen in years.) The filmmaker seems to be warning us that the combination of patriarchy and belief in a God of wrath is a dangerous combination. A couple of generations later what happens to the Williams family will consume the entire community of Salem, resulting in the death of many more citizens. Nor, when we reflect upon this film, are we immune today from this toxic mixture. With hate-filled radical Muslims blowing up “infidels” and far right Christians killing abortion doctors and homosexuals, the dark side of religion looms large. Let the believer beware!
This review will be in the April 2016 issue of VP with a set of discussion questions.