There’s a strikingly anachronistic scene at the beginning of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s screen adaptation of his 1953 play: a group of teenage Puritan girls really let their hair down, dancing ‘round a burning cauldron, writhing, squealing, baring their breasts. An opening like that might have made the play a high school favorite instead of a chore, but it does more than appeal to prurient youth: it entangles The Crucible’s tale of 17th century witch trials in the modern world even more than the original play did. The orgiastic hysteria of this scene, like something out of modern horror films like The Craft and Carrie, is maintained throughout this chillingly resonant cautionary tale -- it electrifies this Crucible, charging the entire film with a gripping sense of dreadful, sex-fueled inevitability and doom.
Led by Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), these are desperate, lovestruck girls, bewitched by little more than puberty, and performing forbidden rites for no more extraordinary reason than to conjure boys. Abigail has a darker purpose: her love is John Proctor, a married man with whom she has had an illicit affair. Abigail would call up the devil to destroy John’s pious wife Elizabeth, and so she does. When the girls are discovered at their proscribed dance, it sets in motion a riot of recrimination, false accusation, vengeance and mass hysteria which tears the town of Salem asunder.
Miller’s intricate crafting of The Crucible is extraordinary. Double binds and vicious ironies are everywhere: those who confess to witchcraft are spared, while those who deny the accusations are hanged for witchcraft, because, of course, only a witch would lie. Truth, and even God, are subservient to conformity within the hypocritical boundaries of Salem. If the Devil has any power in Salem, it is the power of suggestion -- he lives in the minds of Abigail’s frightfully susceptible cohorts. Abigail’s spite, her schoolgirl vengeance is amplified by the believing screams of her hysterical co-accusers. Abigail is empowered by accusation, so the accusations escalate until she has the entire town in her grip, until the destructive force of all of society are hers to command and unleash.
Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield), presiding over the witch trials, is sinister hubris personified, a man determined, at any cost, to be the one to rid Massachusetts of the Devil. Convinced of his own authority, he also convinces himself that the nonsensical justice he ekes out is somehow logical -- he isn’t so much doing God’s work as satisfying his own ego, crushing men under his thumb just because he can. Thus, Salem’s only hope for a reasonable voice perjures himself, and knowingly entangles reason in a web of deceit and conceit. Scofield is brilliant in the role, bringing to the surface the miles of twisted hanging rope in Danforth’s soul.
Ryder is surprisingly forceful as angry, fiery Abigail. Her passion turns so easily to demonic, vengeful rage that it is easy to forget that Abigail is also a victim, the immature lover of a steadfast pillar of the community who now denies knowing her. Proctor is nonetheless still the heroic martyr of this Crucible, and in Daniel Day-Lewis’s hands, he comes off as wounded and ultimately decent, a man whose faith in the truth is tragically misplaced. Joan Allen’s Elizabeth is the most poignant character here: she takes on the burden of John’s sin, accuses herself, in a touching confession, of inviting sin by keeping a "cold house."
Director Hytner (The Madness of King George) maintains a steady, throbbing rhythm that banishes possible staginess in a play with this much antiquated, stately dialogue. This is a fiery Crucible, tense and dramatic, with bodies, minds and souls at war within individuals, and the individual at war with the mob.
The most astonishing aspect of Miller’s impeccable adaptation is the way in which this new Crucible resonates with modern concerns. The McCarthy/HUAC witchhunts, which Miller effectively allegorized in his play, are as distant a memory for most as the Communist paranoia that fueled them. And while we may think ourselves more cynical and sophisticated now, the many topical parallels The Crucible touches on are like a laundry list of modern proofs of our collective gullibility. The credence given to child accusers is as troubling as the ease with which they are manipulated for some adult motive; likewise, the ease with which an accusation escalates into communal paranoia and hysteria, and media frenzy, is vividly realized. The parallels to modern trials against so-called Satanic day-care providers and parents, teenage vampire cults, and the like, are obvious. It is not so much the accusers, the vulnerable, frightened children who are exposed here; lies by themselves have no moral force until it is invested by a community of willing believers.
Equally forceful are Miller’s observations about modern scapegoating, about self-important and self-appointed keepers of community values who squash the vulnerable because they are easily squashed (and because they enjoy doing it), and a society that wants to be told what to believe, what to desire, what soda to drink, what movies to see (by the way, see this movie). Salem needs the Devil, they actually want Satan in their midst, invite him into their hearts by keeping their cold, dark houses -- he’s the passion, the fire in their souls, the irrepressible within the repressed, the individual within the cold, lifeless community. There’s the final irony of The Crucible: we are, perhaps more now than when Miller first wrote his play, the mindless collective we fear, and in a treacherously twisted logic, the individual, the iconoclast, the alien, becomes the evil in our midst. No less than in 1953, this Crucible is a modern American masterpiece.