At first, I thought this was going to be a kind of a rehash of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village." It does sound very similar: a group of people living at the edge of a forest in primitive conditions start to believe that there's something in the woods out to get them. In this case, they believe there's a witch, or even the devil. But, although this has more of a supernatural element than Shyamalan's movie, in some respects it also has a more authentic feeling.
This movie really is set in the 17th century. An apparently strict Puritan family, recently arrived at a plantation colony in the New World from England, is banished from the colony because of their religious beliefs. They take up residence in a clearing, with only themselves for company and without the protection of the colony, and with the dark and mysterious forest right beside them, and tragedies start to befall them almost immediately - beginning with the death of the infant son. The family seems divided into various alliances, for lack of a better word: mother and father, older brother and sister, and younger brother and sister. All of them are impacted by the baby's death in a variety of ways, but it's the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) who becomes the target. She had been caring for the baby when it disappeared. Gradually, as things continue to spiral downhill for the family, Thomasin is suspected of having made a deal with the devil; of being a witch - with results that are ultimately tragic.
There is an authentic feel to this. There were fears of witches in the early-mid 17th century, and especially in New England. There were isolated families, in a strange new land, not knowing for sure what lurked in the forests that weren't very far away. Many were hyper-religious. They were inclined to see Satan at work when hardship befell them. They did turn on each other - many of the "witch" accusations that were made in the era were started by children making up stories that got out of hand because the adults took them seriously. So I actually could buy into this story. I actually could feel sympathy for poor Thomasin as the accusations against her from her own family spiralled out of control. And the performances in this from everyone really were very good. In addition to the sympathy I felt for Thomasin, I was intrigued by the character of William, the father (played by Ralph Ineson.) Yes, he was a strict and hyper-religious Puritan, obsessed with sin and fearful (or at least uncertain about) his eternal fate. But there was also a strangely compassionate nature about William. He did love his family - often very tenderly, kind of turning the traditional stereotype of the strict Puritan father on its head. It was a very good performance. I thought that director Robert Eggers also did a very good job. The movie was filmed in a very isolated location in northern Ontario, and Eggers used the location to great advantage, right down to using only natural lighting, which added to the atmosphere of the movie. He also insisted on using English actors, supposedly so that the accents would be authentic - notwithstanding the fact that the English of the early 17th century probably had a different sound than a modern English accent.
And yet, ultimately this disappointed me. The story does, in fact, go for a supernatural ending, as Thomasin, who emerges as the last survivor of the family after killing her own mother while her mother was trying to kill her, does in fact make a deal with the devil (who's represented in the movie by a black goat the family has named Black Phillip.) Ultimately, she ends up joining a coven of witches deep in the forest, with the last scene showing all of them levitating. Perhaps this may seem strange, but I thought that last scene weakened the worth of this as a horror movie. For me, the actions and thoughts of real human beings are far more chilling than supernatural silliness, and the horror of this movie was really the slow buildup of paranoia as we watched the family turn on each other, blaming each other for things that could well have just been natural tragedies. No devil or witches needed, in other words. The ending came across as just silly to me, and detracted from rather than summing up everything that had come before.
But that last scene aside, I can't deny that I enjoyed this movie. It was a reasonable look (the ending notwithstanding) at something that could very well have happened in that era and in that context. (6/10)
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