Release: Friday, February 19, 2016
Written by: Robert Eggers
Directed by: Robert Eggers
In Robert Eggers’ feature film debut a certain amount of faith is required. Faith in a relatively unfamiliar cast, in the Colonial-period pressure cooker a young writer-director throws us into; faith that something terrible is going to come of all of this. Much of that faith won’t go unrewarded, for The Witch, in all its creepiness, sends chills down the spine á la The Babadook, the magnificent debut of Aussie Jennifer Kent.
Unlike that stress-inducing exercise, Eggers’ film doesn’t quite manage to cap off 80-something minutes’ worth of nervous anticipation with a suitably nerve-shattering climax. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Witch is something special, containing its madness within a world so authentic you’ll find yourself walking out of the theater babbling in Olde English about what Ye have just witnessed. Indeed production design is crucial. The very environment itself is beyond creepy. Costuming, lighting, even the score — all are tinged with an archaicness that horror hasn’t seen in some time.
Story is set in the early 17th century, and follows the degradation of a family recently shunned from their Puritan village for their — and get this — extremist religious views (how intolerant do you have to be in order to get banned from a community that exiled itself from England because they wanted to exercise their own religious freedoms?). William (Ralph Ineson, who played essentially the European version of Dwight on the original, British version of The Office) is the head of his clan and is happy to take them — a wife and five children — to a cabin at the edge of the dark and ominous woods where they’ll be free to honor God as they so please.
It’s not long before strange things start happening. Disappearing infants. Blood-squirting goats (where there ought to be milk). Paranoia runs rampant, threatening to tear the entire family apart. The devout William and Katherine (Kate Dickie) believe these situations are tests of their faith and find that they must endure, even if it’s becoming increasingly obvious their trials are a result of witchcraft and black magic. The episodes almost seem to be stemming from behaviors exhibited by one of their own, a concern that in turn ramps up our dread ten fold as things get uncomfortably personal.
Sharing Kent’s affinity for building and maintaining suspense, Eggers spends much time depicting this particular family, one that, not unlike those they’ve left behind in the security of the gated community, feels a certain sense of longing for where they came from. The Witch thrives on emotional isolation as much as it does the physical, securing solid characters and a relationship dynamic between the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her stern parents: mother is far more hostile toward her than her gruff father. It helps that the acting is top-notch as well. The Witch proves to be yet another addition into contemporary horror, a genre in which scream queens are being drowned out by the long-suffering quiet child.
But Eggers posits that all of the bizarre activity around the settlement — crops of corn going bad, the aforementioned bloody goat (one goat in particular is likely to play a role in my nightmares tonight), and people wandering off into the woods — isn’t just a matter of circumstance. There’s an eerie connection associated with the strict adherence to religious doctrine and daily behavior. Thomasin likes to tease her younger siblings with tall tales of her being an actual witch, particularly her younger twins. Meanwhile there doesn’t seem to be a moment that goes by where William and/or Katherine aren’t questioning themselves and the innate goodness of their children.
Eggers is clearly of the thinking that less is more, employing several techniques to slowly tease out the phantasm from our minds and provide a physical rendering of it on screen. It’s an occasionally frustrating approach, given such technically impressive world-building and characters. We end up wanting more, and not for a lack of entertainment. Eggers simply concocts such an engrossing environment we want to see what kind of evil is out there, something that might intellectually match the physical authenticity of this place. Even if The Witch doesn’t quite delve deep enough into those dreadful woods, this New England folktale is likely to be seared into the memory for some time. It seems Eggers, like the witch, is for real.
Recommendation: The Witch serves as a fascinating study of religious belief and how effective (or, if you are less trusting, ineffective) faith can be in the face of pure evil. Austere production design effortlessly transports us back to a time and place far less forgiving of human error (or weakness, for the lack of a better word). Given that there are multiple scenes in which you could cut the tension with a knife, it actually might be best to think of the film as a thriller with horror elements rather than as pure horror.
Running Time: 92 mins.
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