A film review by Craig J. Koban March 1, 2016

RANK:  #6

THE WITCH jjjj
 

2016, R, 90 mins.

 

Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin  /  Ralph Ineson as William  /  Kate Dickie as Katherine  /  Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb  /  Ellie Grainger as Mercy  /  Lucas Dawson as Jonas

Written and directed by Robert Eggers

Any horror film can throw violence, gore, and jump scare up on the screen in hopes of terrifying audience members.  

I’ve always been more frightened, though, of the intangible unknown of what’s to come next in a film from scene to scene.  Recent magnificent horror films like last year’s IT FOLLOWS and THE WITCH understand this notion rather perfectly.  Making his directorial debut, New Hampshire-born, Brooklyn based Robert Eggers wisely understands that the key to truly unnerving tension and real horror in a horror film is in establishing and maintaining a chronic sensation of dread throughout.  What’s so diabolically scary about THE WITCH is not only the film’s ubiquitously ominous atmosphere, but also in how methodically patient and deliberate it is in building up on our shared and escalating feelings of unease throughout.  As a result, Eggers’ film becomes a relentlessly eerie and nail-biting triumph of tone.   

THE WITCH’s historical setting is audacious, not to mention crucial to the film’s innate ability to immerse us in a world that feels tactile and credible, despite taking place hundreds of years in the past.  Set in mid-17th Century New England, the film does a sensational job of evoking its time and place, especially for how it relays a deeply devout Christian family that’s petrified of going against the greater will and good of God.  This, of course, ties into the larger themes of the religious hysteria of the era in terms of the infamous witch trials (which would occur 60 years after the events of the film) and how they tested faith and, to a degree, the sanity of many.  THE WITCH ultimately becomes so unsettling because of the sheer and limitless power of its period specific authenticity.  With modest, but strikingly rendered production design, haunting cinematography, and actors thanklessly performing with thick Old English timbers, there’s rarely a moment in the film when you doubt the plausibility of this Scripture quoting colonial family unit and their slow descent into madness.  And that’s what makes THE WITCH so bloody nightmarish to endure. 

 

 

The film opens in 1630’s Massachusetts and we are quickly introduced to the aforementioned family.  William (Ralph Ineson) has taking his clan – made up of wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), daughter Thomasin (Anna-Taylor-Joy), and twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Jonas Dawson) – away from his community and into the far reaches of the woods in hopes of starting life anew.  Even though farming and providing for themselves will be an endlessly hellish ordeal considering their relative isolation, William remains headstrong and positive minded about his family’s chances.  Tragedy unfortunately steps in one day when William's newborn baby mysteriously vanishes without a trace (while under Thomasin’s care), leaving William and his wife utterly crestfallen.  Multiple searches into the woods come up short, which only further deepens the family’s sense of despair. 

Now, just who or what in the hell took this little innocent baby?  The film remains curiously aloof early on, but it soon becomes abundantly clear that some supernatural entity is at play here.  What’s unknown, though, is whether or not Thomasin herself is in league with purveyors of witchcraft or not (she’s becomes the family’s prime suspect, since she was the last person with the baby, not to mention that some innocuous playtime with her twin siblings has them sounding off the alarms as to her innocence).  Further tragedies begin to mount on the family’s already heavily burdened shoulders, which only helps fuel all of their paranoid delusions.  With each new emotional trial that befalls them witchcraft (and Thomasin’s potential involvement) seems to be a more disturbingly likely culprit by the day.  William - once a sound, decent, and headstrong patriarch - sees his own grasp of sanity slipping, which begins to have a devastating impact on his family’s well being. 

THE WITCH is one of the finest examples of slow-burn horror that I’ve seen in quite some time.  It never fully rushes out of the gate to shock us, but rather it takes its time to ground us in the plight of this family, which makes their mental implosion all the more distressing.  The film is less about schlock and awe action and torture porn mayhem (traits that so many modern horror films subscribe to) than it is about engineering scrupulously modulated menace to the point where just about anything in the film feels like a harbinger of torment.  Eggers clearly studied his Kubrickian influences rather astutely, seeing as THE WITCH – much like THE SHINING – is about channeling the film’s chilling and pressurized environment, which suffocates not only the characters that reside within it, but also viewers that have to experience their suffering.  Shot with carefully orchestrated camera work and controlled editorial choices in the Canadian wilderness and mixed further with composer Mark Korven’s screechy and sinister chords, Eggers gets maximum bang for his modest, low budget buck.   

The film is also much more thematically dense and rich than so many other contemporary horror films.  Notions of man versus nature are elicited for obvious reasons, as the film – beyond its genre parameters – becomes a fully engrossing chronicle of Europeans desperately trying to tame the foreboding landscape that threatens their existence on a daily basis.  In many respects, THE WITCH is a bravura work for getting audiences into the headspaces of its characters and asks us to understand what living under such conditions was like centuries ago.  Then, of course, the film’s overt spiritual dimension grabs a hold as it investigates how faith and religion – without coming off as temperamentally preachy – is both a positive source of inner strength as well as a negative catalyst of feverous agitation for the family.  Beyond that, the film adds a whole added complex layer of intrigue in exploring incestuous adolescent sexuality between siblings and how children – even at remarkably tender ages – are able to milk their parents’ fears regarding their offspring and twist it into something even more unsavory.    

THE WITCH becomes engrossing in the simple, but far-reaching questions it poses at viewers: Is there really an evil witch in the woods that’s waging a cerebral war on this family?  Or, has the family become so enraptured and obsessed in their own zealot-like religious beliefs that they simply believe that demonic forces are the only logical answers to their horrendous problems?  Is Thomasin an agent of evil as well…or is she simply a blameless victim of her family’s ever-growing mistrust in her?  The individual performances are sensationally realized and only help cement the film’s tantalizing possibilities.  Ineson and Dickie are immensely strong as the parents and have extremely difficult jobs of showing their respective character’s unraveling sanity without overselling it to the point of feeling obtrusively over-the-top.  Anna Taylor-Joy is particularly powerful as Thomasin in the sense that she has to portray a deeply troubled young women that’s torn between the unholy accusations of her hostile family that might also be harboring secrets regarding her real motives and allegiances.  The fact that THE WITCH constantly makes us debate her innocence and/or guilt is to its revered credit.   

Eggers builds everything to boil in a final act that unequivocally gets under your skin in tortuous ways.  It could easily be argued that the final few minutes of THE WITCH perhaps makes the mistake – that it doesn’t make during 95 percent of its running time – of specifically explaining too much for its own good (a more vague and open ended conclusion might have been a finer choice).  Yet, Eggers maintains such a Hitchcockian manipulation and hypnotic stranglehold over his audience that I was simply willing to forgive some last minute scripting indiscretions.  THE WITCH is a highly rare breed of horror film in the manner that it provokes the mind as well as it unsettles our very souls.  Compellingly, you see very little, if any, witches in the film.  But that’s the point.  Eggers’ film is masterfully terrifying for what we don’t see throughout

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