In 1692, a band of young girls from the Puritan community of Salem go into the woods at night for some forbidden revelry. After they are seen by the town's conservative minister, two of their number fall into a mysterious sleep. Another clergyman who specializes in witchcraft is summoned to Salem. He draws out a confession from a frightened maid that she has made a pact with the devil. Soon the other girls are accusing certain members of the community of being agents of Lucifer. Salem is torn apart by paranoia and hatred.

This riveting screen adaptation of The Crucible is based on Arthur Miller's 1953 play. It presents a convincing portrait of the way Americans consistently have denied personal responsibility for evil and projected it onto others. Here a sex-driven young woman (Winona Ryder) seeking to avenge herself on her estranged lover's wife, a zealous judge (Paul Scofield) who puts order above truth, and a self-serving minister (Bruce Davison) who wants to hold on to his power conspire with other members of the town to bring down a nonconformist (Daniel Day-Lewis), his godly wife (Joan Allen), a spiritual elder (Elizabeth Lawrence), and a handful of pariahs.

Although the original drama was meant to reflect upon the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, this film directed by Nicholas Hytner, has more universal implications. It cuts to the heart with its revelations about the potentially destructive power of the urge for self-preservation, the chaos created by a society's fear of the unknown, and the great courage it takes to stand up to authoritarian zealots.

As one of the most sobering and prophetic films of the 1996, The Crucible compels us to recognize the shadow side of our lives, including the evil inside us. The ending also compels us to think about whether there is anything that we would be willing to die for.