As I’ve no doubt said multiple times before, I’m generally not a fan of horror movies, but the trailer for this film whispered that maybe it was the kind of atmospheric horror story that I could handle. For one thing, it looked absolutely gorgeous, but it also didn’t present itself as the kind of horror film where things are leaping into the frame to give you a jolt of adrenaline. It had a very hushed aura to it, with a delicious feeling of dread rather than of fear. As emotions go, I appear to be more comfortable with dread than with fear.
And indeed, the trailer represented the film well. It is a very beautiful, painterly movie, with dark, almost colorless photography capturing the drab lives of the Puritan settlers whose story this is. The feeling of dread that permeates the film is largely religious in origin: these people are scared to death that their inescapably sinful natures are going to send them straight to hell. Because they’ve been exiled outside the larger settler community for unspecified spiritual pride, they are completely isolated in trying to survive their sins, let alone their hunger. It becomes clear that the natural world itself, represented by the forest, animals, and sexuality, is an evil place tempting them to fall from a grace that their stern Savior may have not granted them to begin with.
Since this is New England in 1630 — a few decades before the Salem witch trials — it’s only natural that when the infant in the family mysteriously disappears, the suspicion grows that a witch must have abducted him, and indeed the film shows us that this is so. However, as the family members turn against each other and begin to accuse each other of being the witch, or confessing to their own sins as the cause of their calamity, it becomes less clear that what the movie has shown us is objective reality rather than some kind of nightmarish hallucination brought on by fanatical religious belief and sheer nervous trauma.
The recent film this reminded me of was Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), which shares a Kubrickian visual formalism, an emotionally detached perspective, dissonant classical soundtrack, and a focus on the power and dangers of female sexuality. It shares some of those things with Ex Machina (2015) as well, but it’s a less sleek beast than either Under the Skin or Ex Machina. It’s much darker and more opaque, for one thing, and looks like a Rembrandt painting. Linguistically, it’s a little bit like Shakespeare, with period-appropriate dialogue and accents (both hard for me to understand at times). There are weirdnesses that I didn’t understand or fully perceive, such as why the two young fraternal twins look so strange — like Munchkins or very small adults. Was that intentional?
The ending is controversial, but Eggers has said he intended to depict a Puritan nightmare. If you approach it on that level, I think the ending makes sense. It’s a nightmare of the release of women’s sinful, sexual nature, which can also be looked at as a celebration of the same, depending on your point of view. Is it real, or is it fantasy? Depends on what you believe. The movie is ambiguous and let’s you come to your own conclusions, giving the audience plenty to chew on when the curtains close.