The Witch is ripe with allegorical possibilities.

You can't live in Seattle for 22 years without understanding that not everyone considers nature—mountains, forests, hillocks, thatches (basically any unpaved road)—to be elementally terrifying. With that in mind, I will allow that not everyone who reads this review will consider The Witch to be as scary as I did.

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Maybe you enjoy the onset of dusk in a wintry wood, the telltale twig snapping under the foot/cloven hoof of some unseen threat, the empirically fucked shape of goat pupils. Maybe hunting, gathering, foraging, and farming strike you as noble, enlivening pursuits. Maybe you think the main problem with the North American continent in the 17th century was its paucity of ascetic Christian morality. If so, The Revenant may be more down your alley.

If any or all of the aforementioned things fill you with primordial dread, however, then The Witch is the horror film for you.

It's 1630, in New England. As the film opens, a family of devout Christian farmers is being banished from a thriving Puritan plantation for an offense that is never quite explained, but has something to do with degrees of religious principle. At his trial, the father, William (Ralph Ineson, aka Chris Finch from The Office UK), scolds his judges for being "false Christians," and then he leads his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children out into the roadless vastness of the untamed continent.

Their dream of building their own farm and their own simple, pious life is beset by the standard hardships of the frontier, but they struggle and survive as best they can. Then things get dark.

Their infant son mysteriously disappears, secreted away by a mysterious figure who lives in the woods that surround their small plot of land. The tragedy is followed by a series of supernaturally portentous calamities: The corn crop fails, a freshly laid egg is cracked open to reveal a fully formed fetal chick, the goat's udder gives blood instead of milk. Everything that can go wrong soon does, but William remains determined, or perhaps just desperate. "We will conquer this wilderness," he insists, pridefully. "It will not consume us."

Not even his beloved Bible could have prepared him to understand how wrong he is.

The central figure in The Witch—aside from the eerie sense of looming peril that suffuses every frame—is the eldest daughter, Thomasin. She's played by Anya Taylor-Joy, a teenage actor/model whose huge dark eyes and preternatural facial symmetry lend her assured performance an air of innocence and otherworldliness that make the increasingly harrowing events seem perfectly plausible.

As the family's misfortunes mount, Thomasin becomes the object of suspicion and false accusation (she had been minding the baby when he disappeared). Her mother rejects her. Her father pities her. Her eldest brother lusts after her. Her younger twin siblings fear and betray her. As this tense dynamic mounts into an exotic hybrid of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, it becomes clear that the story is happening to Thomasin, and that it will be up to her to survive it.

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As in any good horror film, The Witch is ripe with allegorical possibilities. You can read it as a cautionary tale about the colonial/imperial impulse, a morality play about the vice of false Christian values, a simple warning not to fuck with Mother Nature. But the film's great strength lies in the combination of mischief and austerity with which director Robert Eggers teases out all of these possibilities while refusing to adhere to any of them.

This approach allows him to conjure a bone-deep sense that the characters have intruded on something much greater, and more terrifying, than they could ever have anticipated. They are effortlessly outmatched by the enveloping darkness in a way that both confirms and travesties their religious convictions, and makes their eventual fate seem predetermined. The effect is of a fear glimpsed, the way it is in dreams, something you're remembering more than seeing—which makes the menace all the more insurmountable.

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