The Protestant Reformation opened the door to a priesthood of all believers, empowering anyone to interpret Scripture for himself (or herself!) Worse yet for those establishing or consolidating Protestant denominations, people claimed not just direct access to Scripture, but direct access to God. Authority preferred to believe that the work of revelation was done; it challenged those who claimed that God or the Holy Spirit communicated with them directly with the possibility that it was the devil talking. The patriarch of the doomed family in Robert Eggers' film hasn't necessarily claimed divine communication -- in fact he seems to hold a radical doubt about his own or other people's salvation -- but he has reached a point where he, and by extension his family, can't accept the authority of the local church fathers, and so, like many real families of 17th century New England, they are cast out to make their own way in the wilderness. In isolation they have only themselves from which to make the sacred drama that defined so many lives back then. There's something incestuous and almost cannibalistic about it, and maybe something fundamentally American that would make The Witch as much a prophetic film as a period piece.
Because Eggers has made a "Folktale," supposedly inspired and to an extent copied from contemporary documents, he has no obligation to whatever the "truth" was about witches in New England. You could watch this film and believe that belief in witches made them real, that the witch was a role someone had to play in the sacred drama of Puritan existence. Just as the man who thinks he hears God may hear the Devil, so those who separate or are separated from the mainstream faith community exist virtually next door to exiled or self-exiled witches. How different is this patriarch's "conceit" from the witches'? The Witch is a microcosm of the New England legend, the little family turning on itself amid simmering sensual tensions, the children (specifically the daughters, of course) accusing each other of witchcraft, with the folktale twist of genuine magickal menace in the woods just past the lonely family farm. A baby disappears in a virtual blink of an eye. The stakes are even higher than we moderns appreciate, since the baby hasn't been baptized and the family appears to believe in infant damnation as a corollary of original sin. Father (Ralph Ineson) can't assure his kids that they're saved, while sisters Mercy (Ellie Grainger) -- the younger, and a twin -- and Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the elder, take turns pretending to be witches and accusing each other of witchery to tease and torment each other. Mercy and her twin brother have an unsettling devotion to the turbulent goat Black Phillip, while Thomasin, coming of age, is constantly unsettled, newly attentive to male flesh -- father's, brother's -- and other phenomena. Thomasin's increasingly an unsettling element in the family, one the parents consider purging by hiring her out as someone's maid, to help themselves make it through the winter after a poor harvest. As witchery outside grows more blatant and aggressive, the family grows more determined to find it in their own midst -- where, in fact, it is.
The Witch goes for dread more than scares, having few conventional horror cues until it gets diabolically busy toward the end. The wilderness without and the family drama within are ample if not equal sources of dread. The family is a disaster in the making from the beginning in its fanatic isolation and obsession with damnation, and the wilderness seems to respond to that by revealing witches. Black Phillip stands for the diabolic potential of the entire animal kingdom, if not the whole natural world, and it's almost certainly the greatest film performance ever given by a goat. Its human co-stars are uniformly plausible as people of the 17th century and convincing in their moments of hysteria. Their drive for isolation and their divinely or diabolically inspired impulse toward mutual recrimination -- their habit of seeing the devil in each other, of blaming one another for failures tantamount to damnation -- don't quite seem obsolete from today's perspective. Despite the antiquarian detail, part of the horror of The Witch comes from recognizing the forces that drive this family to destroy itself as elements that exist today, even if often stripped of their theological trappings. Don't get the idea that the film's a political statement; I don't think Eggers intended any such thing. But what he achieved is so effectively evocative that it's bound to resonate relevantly with many historically conscious or simply sensitive viewers. Horror fans should dig it for its dreadful escalation toward some intimately epic mayhem. Any sense of relevance they or the rest of us get out of it is a bonus.