Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity)
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 2/19/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 18, 2016
In a uniquely twisted way, The Witch is a condemnation of religious fanaticism, as well as the stubbornness of ideas and ideals that comes with it. The film is not, though, an attack on religion or belief in the supernatural. That's the twisted part of its argument: There must be truth to religion and the supernatural for the film's case to be made. Writer/director Robert Eggers, making his feature film debut, neither hides the existence of a witch nor challenges the foundation of the faithful characters' beliefs. They are right in those beliefs, but they are wrong in the extent to which it controls their lives.
That second statement can be taken one of two ways: Either they are too strident in their beliefs, or they are not nearly strident enough. Eggers doesn't answer the question, although he definitely puts both notions to the test. In the film's opening scene, a father is arguing his case for his brand of Christianity to a tribunal of religious officials in a New England town. The period is the early 1600s, a time when many folks had established new roots after escaping to the New World in order to practice their faith, which was seen as too extreme in the old country, as they saw fit. This man is too extreme for even those folks to tolerate.
Here is a man who does not believe the local church is correct. "False Christians," he calls these men, before they sentence him and his family to exile.
After the gates of the village close to cut them off from the scant presence of civilization in this place, the family travels across the countryside, finding a new home along the border of a fearsome forest. From those woods, we can hear the dissonant chanting of female voices. At first, the question of whether they are real or just an eerie addition to the soundtrack is unclear. The film answers that soon after.
The father is William (Ralph Ineson), a rigid man with unflinching principles and a rigorous work ethic. He has started a farm. The crops are dying. The few animals, especially a bulking goat with black hair and horns that arch into pointed daggers, are unwieldy.
Only William's elder daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) appears willing and able to work. His eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is distracted with pre-pubescent interest in the opposite sex. After the exile, the only available candidate to satisfy that interest is his older sister, so he sneaks peeks at the skin exposed by the open buttons of her blouse. Fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) are too busy playing with that goat, which they've named Black Phillip, to be of any use for chores, and William's wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) has recently given birth to their fifth child.
The infant disappears one morning, as Thomasin plays peek-a-boo with the baby. One moment, her eyes are covered, and the next, the giggling infant is gone. The mystery of those warped-angel voices from the woods is solved, as we see a woman's hand caress the baby before a knife appears in frame. This is a horror film, obviously, but Eggers treats this moment of demonic sacrifice without any kind of luridness. The detached, almost clinical way that he approaches the setup to the act and its result is even more disturbing than the violent scene that could have been portrayed. What we see is gruesome enough.
The film is about building an atmosphere of dread, both in terms of the threat that exists in the woods and the distrust that mounts within the family unit, fueled by religious fervor and the growing realization that William may have doomed his family because of his beliefs. He becomes more desperate, taking Caleb into the forest to hunt for food, despite his and his wife's insistence that their children are not allowed to enter into woods. The father and the son must lie to assuage Katherine's fears of losing another child, and that lie turns into another and into another. There's another trek into the forest that sees Caleb's good intentions of helping his father go down a path to which good intentions—and sexual curiosity—can lead.
William is a hypocrite, and it's intriguing how Eggers' screenplay and Ineson's performance make this hardened man more sympathetic as the character betrays his ideals, as one must when faced with matters of basic survival. Taylor-Joy's performance is also effective as a girl who does not share her parents' faith but becomes convinced—too late—that there is something otherworldly at play. Eggers has written the dialogue in the language of the period, and save for a few of the younger performers, the actors do a commendable job communicating the meaning and emotion behind the words, even as the phrasing sometimes sounds alien and indecipherable.
That foreignness is partially the point. Eggers is juxtaposing the reality of this setting (the language, the performances, the setting, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke's imposing, confining use of natural light) with the elements of—what the film openly admits on its title card to be—a "folk tale." Because the film treats the mortal and the supernatural realms as equally real, the two worlds must merge in some way. When they do, is it a form of punishment for these characters or an inevitable consequence?
The former is, perhaps, the more easily digestible answer, but The Witch isn't quite that black-and-white. It wrestles with these notions, arriving at the conclusion that the mere existence of the otherworldly in the real world is itself a frightening idea.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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