All your high school English class memories of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible won’t prepare you for the scene that opens Nicholas Hytner’s joltingly powerful new movie version. In 1692, a group of teenage girls gather in the woods of Salem, Mass., to conduct an unholy ritual. In the predawn twilight, they writhe, dance, and bare their breasts in the dusky mist. One of them, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), goes further still — she lets down her flowing dark hair and drinks animal blood, a witchcraft charm to destroy the wife of the man she loves. In The Crucible, which was first performed in 1953, Arthur Miller applies the torch of melodrama to the history of the Salem witch trials, a case of ”justice” gone hysterical, and the hysteria of this Black Mass prologue is all too real. The reason you won’t remember it is that it’s not in the original play: Miller, who has retooled his work for the screen, added the sequence to make visible what was left to our imaginations before. Such literal-mindedness usually takes away more than it adds. In this case, however, it sets a mood of eroticized fear and delirium that reverberates throughout the movie.
Hytner, who directed 1994’s The Madness of King George (also adapted from the stage), has done something startling with Miller’s stately popular classic: He has made it pulsate with dramatic energy. And what a play it is — the definition of rock-solid middlebrow excitement. The devil may not be alive in Salem, but, as the movie makes clear, he lives — zestfully — in the minds of these young girls. They want to conjure the forbidden, to experience the sensuality and madness driven underground by a frigid, repressed society, and when they’re observed in the woods by Abigail’s uncle, the Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison), and put on trial for witchcraft, it sets off an insidious chain reaction of accusal, denial, and guilt, with denial becoming the ”proof” of guilt. (Who but a witch needs to lie?) We’re seeing a community engulfed by paranoia, but also by a rite of sensationalism: the devil made flesh.
The devil has his uses, too. While working as a servant, Abigail had a secret love affair with John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), a farmer alienated from his primly devout wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen). The affair ended when Abigail was dismissed. But she’s still in love with John, and she seizes the opportunity to accuse Elizabeth — the most pious woman in town — of witchcraft. Ryder, usually a soft, placid actress, unleashes a bold new anger here. It’s a schoolgirl’s fit made demonic — spite magnified to destruction by the power of a society’s hypocrisy. Guilty by association with his wife, John has to prove his righteous mettle by reeling off the Ten Commandments from memory. The audacity of his accusers becomes comic in its sinisterness.
Hytner works in a punchy, combustible style, sweeping his camera through the sunny fields of Salem, using wide-angle lenses to make the actors’ faces pop off the screen. The rhythmic-visual zap is more than electrifying — it summons the rage and recrimination that can sweep through a community like wildfire. Spurred on by the white-maned Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield), who arrives with ambiguous motives to oversee the trials, the residents of Salem discover that there’s power in numbers. As long as they confess, they won’t hang; as long as they deplore the devil, they’re united in having an enemy. The ”witches,” who seem ostracized from the community, are, in fact, its secret soul.
Miller’s play, of course, used the witch trials as a daringly transparent allegory for McCarthyism. Seeing it now, I can’t claim that I was struck by any dazzling new topical parallels. Yes, events in our time have inspired elements of a witch-hunt atmosphere — accusations of child abuse in day-care centers, say, that turned out to be groundless. But the witches of Salem were an imaginary threat (as, for the most part, was the ”Communist conspiracy” of the ’50s), and child abuse, unjust as individual claims of it may be, is all too real. The way The Crucible speaks to us today has less to do with any specific instance of collective indictment than it does with the relentless group-think mentality of modern America, where people, crushed under by a bureaucratic/consumerist/media culture, rely more and more on forces outside themselves to determine what to like, what to say, what to believe. In the movie, Judge Danforth exploits the fire-and-brimstone passions of Salem, a community half in thrall to the devil it’s trying to destroy, but he ends up presiding over a crucible of conformity. Confess — that is, see it our way — and you’ll be free.
As vividly imagined as The Crucible is, it’s up to the actors to animate the stern Puritan cadences of Miller’s dialogue. They bring it off spectacularly. Day-Lewis doesn’t have any tricks to rely on this time — even his New England accent is understated — but in scenes like the one where he confesses his adultery in court, he burrows into the soul of John Proctor’s stubborn decency, his unwillingness to grasp that the truth is the last thing that’s going to protect him. Scofield, eyes boring into all comers, wraps his great basso profundo around lines like ”Now we shall touch the bottom of this swamp.” Judge Danforth’s true obsession isn’t the devil but his own power, his ability to make a good man twist in the wind. It’s Joan Allen who carries the weight of the film’s sorrow, eyes glistening with woe as she delivers the heartbreaking confession to her husband that she kept a ”cold house.” It’s a moment to give you the shivers, because it reveals Elizabeth Proctor as the original sinner of Salem — a woman so moral she creates the devil out of wishing him away. A