Movie review: “The Witch” (2016)


“I cannot write my name.”

“I will guide thy hand.”

It’s a rare occurrence anymore that viewing a new film makes such a subconscious impression upon me that I carry it forward into my dreams. I didn’t have a bad night per se, a mere handful of hours removed from viewing writer-director Robert Eggers’ grim and engrossing period piece The Witch, but I will say it was emotionally fraught. Nor did I dream outright of witches, the existence of which, with their wanton, many would say dangerous perversion and sublimation of the established word and will of God, was an accepted if not central tenet of the Puritan faith, and for a simple reason. Traditionally, I have never found witches particularly scary, though I’m sure your mileage will vary. Though accomplished and involving in its own right, Eggers’ film subtly gains or loses potency depending, in part, on the personal baggage – faith, fears, family – his viewer brings to it, but operates at such a level of sustained tension, even during those great stretches when nothing much appears to be happening, that I’m certain I wasn’t the only one so affected. I never dreamed of getting lost in a deep, forbidding forest, however, or of goats suddenly calling extreme behavioral audibles, or of tiny children smoothly operating well beyond what I would’ve previously imagined their utmost level of creepiness. My dreams were somehow more cryptic than that, as dreams tend to be, trading out 1630 New England for 21st Century Anytown, USA, taking place in a series of parking garages I’ve never entered and an office block at which I’ve never worked, a succession of vague but imposing authority figures assailing me with a barrage of unfair, oft impossible, demands as the dramatic climax of Metallica’s “Fade to Black” raged in my head on an endless background loop. I woke up disoriented and little bemused, both unable and unwilling to return to sleep immediately. I began to write instead. Dreams are such personal things.

the witch posterI had the good fortune to view The Witch at a special screening packed with horror movie aficionados, and it was a rare experience indeed. With the exception of the person, several rows behind me, who seemed to rhythmically and obsessively crumple and uncrumple a large plastic bag for almost the entire running time, the crowd was quiet as the grave, though whether out of deference to their peers or because they were legitimately absorbed by what they were seeing I couldn’t always tell. Eggers’ imparts upon his tale of a remote early-Seventeenth Century family that frays increasingly at the edges as circumstantial evidence accumulates that a witch is in its midst, then finally tears itself apart, a claustrophobic intensity that lingers conspicuously even when its characters step out into the open air. It is so potent in spots that it could comfortably function as a silent movie, which is fortunate, since the thick, overlapping English accents tend to tangle so easily. The Witch requires of its viewer both complete investment and thoughtful patience, resources of which modern audiences are often in short supply. Small wonder that it has engendered such polar extremes of opinion online, with many critics hailing it as unusually atmospheric, singularly committed, and, most importantly, scary, and other self-professed genre fans seeing it instead as pretentious art house bluster, terminally boring, and most decidedly not. I fell largely into the former camp, and took the silence that enveloped me as proof of life of sorts, an unspoken but sound endorsement of Eggers’ efforts at fully immersive, deadly serious, simultaneously psychological and historical horror. The Witch is at pains to deposit its viewer directly into the wretched, wholly unsentimental belly of Colonial America, where the desperate struggle of each new day wasn’t just against the elements but the grip of sin itself. There were a few yelps, guffaws, and belts of reflexive laughter at my screening in the extreme late going, but they barely registered on me, and, even if they had, I would’ve understood. All of that accumulated tension had to go somewhere.

Cast out of their Puritan village for the crime of heresy, the chastened first generation pilgrims travel an indeterminate distance by covered wagon, until at last they chance upon a humble clearing by a stream at the edge of a forbidding forest. The husband and wife drop to their knees in a prayer of Thanksgiving, followed, like green cadets falling into processional line, by their four children – eldest daughter Thomasin, preadolescent son Caleb, and preschool fraternal twins Jonas and Mercy. As by default its most conventionally sympathetic character, which is to say a relatively normal teenaged girl chafing against the rules and expectations of a somber, fearful, religiously fervent, wilderness household, Thomasin, played by versatile newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, is the film’s natural focal point. The events that follow will, almost without exception, be seen through her eyes. Eggers’ visual palette might charitably be described as minimalist, the better to maximize the starkness of late autumn in pre-pre-industrial New England, though I prefer the term drained. Thomasin’s long straw blonde hair is the film’s most reliable and reassuring source of color. The tiny farmhouse contains little overt happiness but does portray a rough sort of contentment. It’s a hard life, sleeping on the dirt floor, serving as not merely farmhand or workhand but default nanny to an unpredictable brood, practicing self-suppression until it is second nature. We watch Thomasin struggle for her parents’ approval, watch her idly babysit Caleb and the twins as she does laundry by the stream, watch her steal a blessed moment away from prying eyes one day to play peek-a-boo with her youngest sibling, the infant Sam. Only, the third time she uncovers her eyes, Sam has vanished. Thomasin’s father, the exiled preacher William (Ralph Ineson, who does his best to maintain the tricky balance between parental concern and Old Testament wrath), scours the surrounding woods to no avail, while her mother, the imperious Katherine (a fire-breathing, truly startling Kate Dickie) remains bedridden and wracked with grief, open to neither reason nor consolation.

It is left to Thomasin in the meantime to hold the family together even more than is her custom. Caleb has begun asking loaded questions and broaching untoward topics. He fancies searching for his baby brother on his own. There are portents. The twins titter and taunt their sister with commentary from their imaginary friend, Black Phillip. Thomasin becomes convinced her parents both suspect her complicity in Sam’s disappearance, and, quite possibly, something much darker. This conclusion is neither lightly considered or arrived at, nor as unbelievable as it might seem, given the chasm separating 17th and 21st century thinking. The only outside faces in The Witch are glimpsed in its earliest moments, as William is tried and convicted before a kangaroo court and turned out of his village, establishing immediately that not only is his family on its own in the rugged hinterlands, but that its relationship with God – its unerring, unquestioning, at times self-flagellating fealty – is the only thing that will possibly allow it to survive. I was never fully clear what William’s offense was, and the film showed no concern to spell it out. What is important is to establish that he and his family are isolated, horizon before them, haunted forest to their backs, miles beyond count between here and whatever passes for civilization, utterly alone. This has the effect of making almost every moment of the back half of The Witch into a perilous existential equation. Confronted with the loss of her youngest, Katherine shows little but contempt for her eldest, and anyone who remembers Dickie’s work playing the half-mad Lysa Arryn on Game of Thrones will congratulate Eggars’ casting director on a coup even before the sparks begin to fly. No one has to plant the word “witch” in Katherine’s head, nor her still conflicted husband’s, and Taylor-Joy is fascinating to watch subtly change as the world she has always known erodes beneath her feet.

Eggers stages his interior scenes masterfully, with diligent attention paid to perspective, often exaggerated, and space, or, rather, lack thereof. Both parents tower over their children to a degree intended to indicate far more than physical stature. The film doesn’t ever shy away from the implication that real darkness haunts these woods but, juxtaposing it with the escalating witch hunt going on back at the farm, largely leaves it up to the viewer to interpret just how much he’s seen could possibly be explained away as either a figment of imagination, hysterical delusion, or cruel cinematic symbolism made manifest. There’s a pronounced mystery element here that straddles the natural and supernatural planes. Eggers leaves all options on the table as he ratchets the familial tension ever upward – the confrontations and accusations, when they come, are pitched at such a frenzied level that practically anyone and everyone in the tiny cabin might be plausibly revealed as a witch – to the point that I was eventually so involved as to lose track of potential outside forces, making my eventual awakening when the questions were answered almost as rude as the family’s. Every character with a speaking role is just about perfect – Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb delivers a pulverizing soliloquy at the last moment you’d expect, and watching the twins violently convulse in response to their sister’s protestations of innocence recalled, with sickening immediacy, tales of the infamous “afflicted girls”, whose “testimony” would eventually send so many accused witches to Gallows Hill back east in Salem. The Witch unfolds as a bleak and ruthless slow burn, not so much overtly frightening as effectively, relentlessly creepy, and holds there, tightening the screw deliberately, before sharply turning into uncharted waters. It ends with a handful of genuinely astonishing moments in rapid succession punctuated by the best isolated jump scare in my recent memory. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it’s not effective.

My gut feeling is that most anyone that wasn’t in some way affected by The Witch probably either abandoned it early on or else made the conscious decision to tune it out. Fans of atmospheric horror, albeit with the requisite levels of patience and thoughtfulness, should absolutely eat this alive. Eggars’ film doesn’t exactly cast a spell, at least not in any conventional sense. It is neither lyrical nor romantic, but, rather, harsh and unblinking – a stirring marriage of documentary intentions with narrative cohesion – beautiful only after a fashion, earthy, efficient, disquieting, and, when it wants to be, brutal. The truly repressed mind might conjure anything. A broken soul will, perhaps, contemplate any bargain. Katherine barely plays at her motherly duties, craving only retribution for her lost child. William does not merely feel his family slowly disintegrating despite his efforts, he must grapple with the sense that God Himself is withdrawing His love and protection from them. Caleb wants only to help, but cannot. Thomasin wants only to escape, but dare not. All of them are sorely afraid, and the worst is yet to come. The Witch is a rich but lowborn curiosity, culled by its own assertion from the shadowy depths of New England folklore and magnificently realized, that builds its case brick by brick until eventually some viewers won’t be able to look away. It is not fun – not exactly – but it is also never less than fascinating.

“The Witch” (2016) 3.5/4 stars

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