Guest Movie Review: The Witch

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Guest Movie Review.

This time it is a review by a friend of mine, Christopher Wilbur, a man with a decorated history with cinema. He has extensive knowledge and insight about films past and present.

The Witch

Genre:  Horror, Mystery

Directed and Written by:Robert Eggers

I’ll let Christopher take it from here.

Writer-director Roger Eggers makes a stunning feature debut with this meticulously crafted period-piece thriller, though I predict this movie will fare better with critics and movie aficionados than with casual audiences. Those looking for jump scares and slasher killings will likely be unfulfilled.

Eggers’ attention to detail is borderline OCD; the seemingly hand-sewn garments, rickety wooden architecture, and the salt-of-the-earth characters perfectly sell us on the authenticity of the 17th century New England setting, but the oddly accented language, which is densely peppered with formal “thees” and “thous” and other colorful old-English words, while earnestly delivered and no doubt thoroughly appropriate to the time period, will likely confuse casual moviegoers. In fact, as I left the theater, I heard a few mutterings of “I don’t get it.” I personally had no trouble following the proceedings, and the handful of lines that did go over my head added to the uncomfortable atmosphere in a positive way.

The movie starts with the family being banished from their small New England community for reasons not made completely clear, though it seems to have something to do with the father, William, being too deeply religious, even by stern Puritan standards, which is saying something. He accepts their banishment with defensive pride, moving his wife and five children into the unknown and untouched wilderness, which (spoilers) proves to be a poor decision.

The presence of the titular witch is established rather quickly with the disappearance of their infant son, snatched into the dark woods during a game of peek-a-boo, and the movie quickly sets a pull-no-punches standard by leaving no question as to the child’s gruesome fate. What follows is a tense study of religious fanaticism and paranoia, with an almost surgical dissection of the family dynamic, a la The Shining. Eggers manages to wrench outstanding performances across the board from his cast of relative unknowns. Ralph Ineson, who some may recognize from “Game of Thrones”, is introduced as a strong but pious man, at turns stern and sympathetic, but we soon learn of his failings as a husband and provider with his inability to successfully hunt or farm the land, and his Jesus-like poses during the family prayers begin to paint him in a narcissistic and flawed light – a self made martyr. Kate Dickie, another Game of Thrones alum, puts in a wonderful performance as his wife, who soon becomes inconsolable after the disappearance of their infant son and becomes unhinged with religious paranoia. These two seem chosen as much for their look as their acting ability, the mother’s hatchet face and father’s rough face already telling stories of their struggled lifestyle and fire-and-brimstone mentality. The eldest brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is strangely captivating as a boy trying to come to terms with the religious dogma enforced by his parents as he begins to feel the first stirrings of adolescence, conflicted by the sinful thoughts he begins to have about his sister. This sounds creepy but comes across as tragic, as the boy has no other outlet upon which to focus his feelings in the claustrophobic farm.. The youngest siblings, twin brother and sister Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger), are competent enough in their tried and true creepy-little-kid roles.

The standout here is the eldest child and anchor of the film, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin, who carries the burden of being the the lone beacon of reason and conscience as the tide of insanity begins to tug at the bonds of the family. Blamed for the disappearance of her baby brother, events conspire to make her the scapegoat as the crops fail, the twins become increasingly mischievous and uncomfortably familiar with the family goat Black Philip, and Caleb disappears and later returns damaged and sickly. Even the livestock begin to seem cursed and menacing. Her milky beauty and fresh face make an easy target upon which to lay superstitious blame.

The film is palpably moody and atmospheric, and the provocative theme of cult-like religious devotion in the face of evil adds to the constant tension and discomfort. The New England countryside is malevolently depicted; a pre-America New England, ancient and wild, full of dark magic and ill intent, presented with a dark and muted color palette and eerie haze. The soundtrack is commendable as well, with a wailing choir crescendo that I swear was pulled straight from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and violently dissonant violin strings ratcheting up the tension effectively.

The ending seemed as if it could have been better executed, but was ultimately quite satisfying, causing me to rethink the meaning of the title and left me wondering if this is in fact intended as a prelude to the Salem Witch Trials that famously plagued this area of young America a short time later. I would have also preferred if it were left to the audience to decide whether the misfortunes that befell the family were actually fantastical in nature or the result of increasing paranoia, rather than leaving no doubt as to the cause.

That said, I do enjoy the unique approach to the period; what if there had been a dark truth that led to the tragic witch hunts of early America?

 

 

 

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