I don’t know. Maybe I’ve had my fill of witch trials by now. From professors at Salem State University to biographers to Robert Eggers and this new, supposedly scary film to—full disclosure– even moi, witch hunt researchers and writers have turned out one slightly different view after another recently. For my money, it’s always crucial to know where the key to a story is to be found, not just that there is one. In this movie, the key is obvious, but that isn’t always so.
Here the key to understanding the film is the scenery, so realistically built that it could be picked up as is and moved to a historical site next to Jamestown or Plymouth Rock or a Renaissance Fair, labeled “Typical Salem Farmstead.” The thatched roofs, the meager indoor comfort of the hearth, the sawdust on the floors of the bare sleeping loft—all make the wrenching loss clear when a single silver cup belonging to the Missus goes missing. They had already passed off a lost child as the work of a forest wolf, but spooky things keep on keeping on. Trying to wring a confession from someone, anyone, is linked directly to the scarcity of anything that could be traded in the absence of a good crop. The trestle table is noteworthy, though. In the midst of poverty, and even though hand craftsmanship could have been excellent then, it looks as if it had been brought in from Ikea.
Also important to understanding the film: The small supper that the family eats together is a sharp contrast to the harsh reality of hard physical labor needed to produce it, work not as fulfillment, but as a means of daily survival. Wood needs to be chopped, goats have to be milked, and corn must be harvested and threshed by hand. When there isn’t enough of a crop to sustain them through the winter, the woods beckon for possible hunting. That isn’t anyone’s choice, though, because the woods are symbolic of all things dark and unknown.
Entering the wood for any reason is not just spooky, but transformational and not in a good sense. Animals and people interchange their roles, and more than symbolically. The hunters become the hunted. Just as in “Young Goodman Brown,” a Hawthorne short story that also explores townspeople and the woods, those who venture there are surprised to find that others also share in all facets of the human personality and experience.
The best acting? Harvey Scrimshaw, the young actor who plays Caleb, displays a broad range of moods, dialogue, and physical contortions in what is a horror film more than a historical masterpiece. Anya Taylor-Joy performs well, portraying a young woman who grows into a realization she resists and then embraces. The two younger kids didn’t add anything of substance, but were necessary to accuse their sister. Their parents, played by Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson, were just haggard, wiry, and stressed enough to be believable.
For a Salem story that is based on factual information and real dialogue, this film gets a better than good grade. But the spoken dialogue had the sometimes sing-song-y quality of a high school play, perhaps because of the ratio of children to adult actors.