Witch, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/18/16 16:47:20
(Worth A Look)
“The Witch” is a film that asks viewers to ponder what might be worse—for your family to fall victim to a witches curse that could destroy them all or to fall victim to their own paranoid superstitions that could prove to be equally destructive in the end? Of course, this is a trick question since both scenarios are pretty awful, as is made painfully clear in this bleak and creepy exercise in historical horror that takes its deceptively simple premise and takes it in any number of grim and unexpected areas. While the end result of writer-director Robert Egger’s feature film debut may not quite be the instant classic that some have claimed it to be ever since it premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, it comes closer than most other genre films as late and should supply even the most jaded moviegoers with a higher number of legitimate jolts than usual.Set in New England in the mid-1600s—a couple of decades before the Salem witch trials, it should be noted—the film opens as William (Ralph Ineson) is banished from the small community where he lives with his wife, Katherine (Katie Dickie) and their five children for not properly following the local religious edicts. While searching for a new place to settle down, they come across a spread of land abutting a forest so dark and forbidding that it makes the woods in “The Evil Dead” seem positively Edenic by comparison. Trouble soon follows one day when the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes the youngest child, the infant Samuel, with her for a walk and a simple game of peek-a-boo takes a terrible turn when she closes her eyes for just a flash and when she opens them, Samuel is gone. Thomasin insists to her parents that she did nothing wrong and the baby just vanished but this is no comfort to them, who fear that the unbaptized child has been damned forever. There is even a sequence involving Samuel in the center of what appears to be a gruesome satanic ritual that might indicate what happened to him or what William and Katherine fear his fate might be as the result of Thomasin’s supposed negligence.
As bad as this is, things quickly grow worse for the family. Katherine blames Thomasin for Samuel’s disappearance and berates her at every opportunity. William is a little more forgiving of her but is nevertheless still willing to let her be punished by Katherine for something that he knows she did not do. Nearly all of their crops fail, leaving the entire family wondering what they can possibly do in order to survive the fast-approaching winter. The second-born child, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), sneaks out into the woods with Thomasin in the hopes of finding food and animal pelts to sell and, without giving too much away, it does not go well and increases suspicions against Thomasin from her parents and her other siblings, twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). If their insistence that their older sister was in the service of Satan wasn’t enough to make Mercy and Jonas the creepiest twins to hit the screen since the girls haunting the halls of the Overlook in “The Shining,” consider the fact that they claim that they have been told that Thomasin is a witch by Black Phillip, the family goat that is also beginning to act more than a little weird. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, Thomasin must continue to fight the forces tormenting her family lest she succumb to them as well.
With its stylized dialogue and heavy portents of guilt, sin and persecution dominating the proceedings right from the beginning, some viewers may spend the first few minutes of “The Witch” wondering if they have inadvertently stumbled into a new film version of “The Crucible”—a terrifying enough notion, one supposes. Make not mistake about it, however, once the hapless family settles on their seemingly cursed land outside of the woods, the film quickly plunges the audience into a nightmare from which, as the characters soon realize, there is no easy escape. One of the most impressive things about the film is how quickly and effectively Eggers is able to establish both the period and the suffocating fear that quickly envelopes the characters. It may take some viewers a minute or two to adjust to the language but other than that, the film manages to present us with a setting that is both immediately recognizable and utterly alien and plays off of both beautifully—it really looks and feels at times as if someone had managed to send movie cameras back in time in order to capture the look and feel of the period. Then, having done that, Eggers springs upon audiences a story that knowingly evokes any number of classical genre tropes while at the same time spinning them off in new and unanticipated directions and does it so successfully that even the elements that might have inspired bad laughs in lesser hands (I’m looking at you, Black Phillip) instead contribute to the general air of unease.
While the performance aspect of most horror films tends to be one of the lesser considerations (as long as the people are attractive and can scream, most anything else can be forgiven), “The Witch” is far more complicated in that regard—one bum acting turn or even just the occasional awkward line reading runs the risk of destroying the delicate mood established by Eggers with little chance of reestablishing it. Luckily, the performances here are as strong as anyone could possibly hope for. As William, Ineson does a good job of a man trying to protect and provide for his family and who might almost welcome the idea that they are being beset by witches so as to take away from his inability to do either. Dickie, a million miles removed from her performance in the acclaimed drama “Red Road,” finds just the right pitch for her character’s combination of naked grief and innate cruelty towards her own daughter and maintains it to such an extent that she gives the woods a run for the money for the title of Most Frightening Presence. As for their children, all of them are quite good but Taylor-Joy, in her first major film role (according to IMDb, she was an uncredited “feeder girl” in “Vampire Academy” and I think we all know how painful that can be), is downright astonishing as Thomasin. Her role is by far the hardest because she has to be the one relatively sane person forced to watch the rest of her family go down the drain as they become overwhelmed with fear and paranoia and at the same time do enough to suggest the possibility that she might indeed be a witch after all. At one point, her character, in a moment of frustration, claims to her bratty younger sister that she is indeed a witch and while she is meant to just be playing around, Taylor-Joy underlines the moment in such a quietly menacing fashion that some viewers may find themselves as creeped out as the sister. It is a marvelous performance and could signal the start of a bright and promising career.Although “The Witch” is one of the more assured debut films that the horror genre has seen in quite a while, I must admit that I am not as completely over the moon with it as some of its fans. One of the best things about the film is the note of ambiguity that it maintains for the most part—the family could just as easily be beset by the inevitable complications resulting from a combination of religious fanaticism and severe isolation as by witches—but there are a couple of crucial moments where what we see seems to point to one conclusion even as it still tries to suggest more than one explanation. (To be fair, some have suggested that these moments are supposed to be read as things conjured up in the fervid imaginations of the characters but I am not so sure about that.) There is also the odd decision by Eggers to not show the immediate family reactions to the various horrors that befall them, preferring to cut away and pick up the action a little later on—this is an interesting idea in theory but it gets a little frustrating after a while because by not showing the immediate reactions, the film seems to be deliberately avoiding some potentially powerful moments. Other than those elements—and even they are not such much mistakes as elements that just do not quite do it for me—“The Witch” is a remarkably effective horror film that deserves a place up on the shelf with such recent knockouts as “The Babadook” and “It Follows” (two other strong films that also happen to be told from a female perspective that ignore the usual gender rules for the genre). Those looking for nothing more than gross-out imagery or the usual cheap shocks may want to give it a pass but those looking for a really frightening experience and an exquisitely well-made film are advised to seek it out.
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