This is a film that is very well made, but without a story to tell. A lot of stuff happens, but the events never really materialize in a meaningful way.
The film follows a family in the 1630’s who are forced out of a Puritan colony because of their religious beliefs. It’s implied that the father is too pure for the puritans. He takes his family deep into the woods to start a new life.
The period detail in this film is phenomenal. The costumes are authentic and feel lived in. The sets and setting feel true. The tools and implements of daily life are perfect. The film is lit with seemingly all natural light. Meaning a gray day looks especially gray. A candle lit room at night is more dark shadows than light. The darkness can be oppressive at times in this movie. It really does transport the viewer to a different time and place.
The story is the problem. Once the family settles their new farm in the woods the oldest daughter Thomasin takes her baby sister into the field. During a game of peekaboo, the baby disappears. Her reaction to the vanished baby doesn’t register shock or fear. She looks more like she’s wondering why the director hasn’t called cut yet.
Instead of staying with Thomasin as she tries to figure out what happened and what her parents reactions are, the film shows the fate of the baby. This does two things, it removes the viewers attachment to the family and demystifies the central mystery of the film.
From this point on the family begins to turn on Thomasin and reproaches and recriminations are hurled. She is slowly torn from her family unit because they think she is a witch. The film is trying to have it both ways. It’s trying to be a paranoia story about how extreme religious fidelity can destroy a family from the inside while also being a supernatural thriller. The family tearing itself apart is a story. The family being torn apart by a witch is a different story. This film kind of does both.
The biggest problem with the film is that it just isn’t engaging. It is so focused on maintaining its tone of solemn seriousness that it becomes monotonous. By trying to create a sense of unease it robs the viewer of the chance to engage with the characters because they don’t behave in a natural way. They focus on Thomasin and call her a witch when her younger siblings keep talking about the fact that they are having conversations with the family’s goat. There are subtextual relationships that are hinted at and then immediately dropped. Hints at incestuous feelings the teenage Thomasin might have for her father and her preteen brother might have for her. The fact that these hints are dropped then ignored is incredibly frustrating and just alienates the viewer.
The film is opaque and different from most in the genre. Critics love anything different and challenging. The problem is that the story is muddled, the themes are poorly handled, and it’s just not engaging let alone scary. I’ve seen the movie twice, and it remains forgettable. Not my cup of tea. C