Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"The Witch" is Old Fashioned Horror

The ambitions of "The Witch," self-described as "a New England Folktale" are considerable.  Writer and director Robert Eggers fashioned the story out of real accounts of witches and witchcraft from 17th century New England, and wrote the script with accurate dialogue from the period.  The production faithfully recreated agriculture, clothing, and props, and the film was shot far from civilization in rural Ontario.  The main actors look and sound like they stepped out of the past - quite an accomplishment since several of them are young children.  And all of it goes a long way toward setting the proper mood for a world where the influence of God and the Devil are treated as very real, powerful things.

We begin with a family of Puritans being expelled from their colony, for the offense of being too prideful and zealous in their devotion.  They go to live in isolation in the wilderness, trying to keep a little farm going.  However, they are constantly plagued by misfortune, and are in danger of starvation or worse.  One day, the oldest daughter, teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is playing with her newborn brother Samuel, when the baby disappears.  The father, William (Ralph Ineson), decides that a wolf stole the baby, but the mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), blames Thomasin.  William and preteen son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) go on a hunting excursion that leads to more lies and more tensions in the household.  And the there are the twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), a pair of mischievous brats who claim to be able to talk to Black Phillip, the family's black ram.

There is a scene quite early on of the baby being brutally murdered by a witch, though whether this is something happening literally or only a flash of a nightmare vision is not clear.  However, it certainly sets the tone of the rest of the film, which is almost entirely free from traditional horror scares and genre trappings.  Instead, it largely plays out like an excellent slow-burning psychological thriller and costume drama, about a family slowly destroying itself.  Religious faith is a major theme, particularly the parents' pride and hypocrisy, and Thomasin's emerging womanhood.  Though very devout, all the members of the family display weakness and sin that ultimately spell their doom.  This is one of the few films I've seen recently that really grapples with Christian and other theological ideas in any kind of meaningful way, and it's fascinating that it should be in the context of an independent horror film.  

And we comes to the filmmaking itself, which is where Robert Eggers really outdoes himself.  "The Witch" is wonderful to look at, with cinematography that really makes the woods into a threatening, forbidding place.  The shot compositions often using natural lighting feel like they came from a much older, formal breed of film.  The pace of life is slower here, and there are more pauses and little moments to let the atmosphere build and build.  However, it's also very effective as an unorthodox chiller, using a lot of elliptical visuals and judicious editing to suggest many things without actually showing them.  Though I've seen the film criticized in some circles for being too literal in its horrors, particularly the ending, there are multiple ways to read what happens.  I love that the way that the environment and the Puritan worldview of the characters are established, allows for so many possibilities.

The cast is terrific, but Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy in particular deserve praise for humanizing their characters.  Ineson's William may be misguided, but he's also a loving and sympathetic man who struggles to do what is right.  Anya Taylor-Joy, who is almost certainly going to attract Hollywood's attention in a big way with this performance, makes Thomasin into someone worth rooting for.  And it's the relationship between father and daughter, fraught with social and religious expectations, that turns out to be the lynchpin of the whole movie.

I feel the need to reiterate that "The Witch" doesn't fit the mold of the modern mainstream horror movie, despite its marketing campaign.  It's not concerned with entertaining the audience with the usual scares and spooks.  Rather, it's an exploration of belief, of the reasons why faith fails and evil is embraced.  It's certainly a horror film, but one that operates by its own stringent rules, and delivers scares of a deeper, lingering nature.

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