Review: The Witch

All photos courtesy of A24

When the family comes across the clearing at the edge of the woods, they fall to their knees and pray, mother and father holding their hands aloft. Pious exiles, this Puritan clan—father William, mother Katherine, and children Thomasin, Caleb, Mercy, Jonas and, soon, baby Samuel—has found true salvation far away from both oppressive England and their compromising Puritan community. It will be a hard life, but a pure and righteous one.

But someone else has already staked a claim on this wilderness. She lives by herself in a shack deep in the thicket, occasionally wearing a red riding cloak that looks lifted directly from the pages of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. She is a witch, but not the cackling, green-skinned variety of The Wizard of Oz or a verbose, compassionate intellectual in the vein of Hermione Granger. There is something much more primal and elemental to this crone, and when she’s done working her unspeakable magic the family at her doorstep will be at each other’s throats.

The Witch is the debut feature film by American writer and director Robert Eggers, a former production and costume designer on movies like YellowBrickRoad. It’s one of the strongest horror debuts I’ve ever seen, on par with Jennifer Kent’s with The Babadook two years ago. The sheer research and care that went into this film is evident at every turn—a postscript says some of the dialogue was lifted from actual witch trials of the era—and combined with excellent casting, cinematography and music it results in one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen. Robert Eggers can put that on the Blu Ray case if he wants but I’m not even remotely famous so he’d be better off quoting someone else.

The family is led by its both morally and physically intimidating patriarch William, played by Ralph Ineson. Ineson isn’t one of the more famous actors to come out of England—fans of the original U.K. The Office will recognize him as the boorish, bullying Chris Finch—but his scarecrow build and deep, raspy voice ensure you won’t forget him anytime soon. I’m not quite sure what the Puritan settlers of New England would have sounded like, but Ineson’s thick Leeds accent lends even more authenticity to a movie whose production design is already rich with it. It’s William’s unwavering fundamentalism that results in him and his family being exiled from their already very zealous community at the film’s outset, and this very same hardline stance only exacerbates their situation as the story progresses. He is all the more frightening as an antagonist and as a father because he is consumed by the uncompromising belief that he is utterly right.

While William is the family’s most commanding and verbose member, newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin acts as both audience surrogate and the closest thing The Witch has to a hero. Thomasin is placed in the thankless role of being both the eldest child and the eldest girl of this Puritan family, meaning she’s given all of the responsibility but with none of the respect or authority one would prefer come along with it. Her significantly younger brother Caleb, looking barely older than 10, is already being taken out to hunt and trained as the man of the house in the event William must venture back to the village to trade. Thomasin quietly bristles at these contradictions but does not voice her protests, perhaps because it might seem inauthentic for a 17th century Puritan girl to start quoting Mary Wollstonecraft, but also because Eggers is a confident and capable enough storyteller to explore this theme through his characters’ actions and the horrifying yet surprisingly restrained chaos that defines The Witch’s second half.

Eggers doesn’t just use the Puritan faith and colonial setting as aesthetic window dressing. To say The Witch takes Calvinism to task would be an understatement; a conversation roughly a third of the way through the movie exposes the unfairness and existential horror of predestination (where, according to Calvinist theology, those who are to be taken into God’s kingdom are predetermined and one’s good deeds have little if any say in the matter). I wouldn’t say the movie is pro-witch—one horrifying sequence fairly early on will disabuse you of that critique—but as tensions in the family ramp up and Thomasin faces increasingly unfair and unfalsifiable accusations, you understand why there is a witch and how her actions can be seen as a reaction to an oppressive system. It speaks to the universality of fundamentalism, but with more nuance and far less neutral white guy condescension than BioShock Infinite.

The Witch was shot digitally, using the Arri Alexa system, with director of photography Jarin Blaschke at the lens. The excellent documentary Side By Side stamped out any snobbery I might have had in the film vs. digital debate, but generally I prefer the grainy, higher contrast look of film. However The Witch might not have been nearly as effective had it been shot on celluloid. Like Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, Eggers’ debut has been shot entirely in low and/or available light. Interior nighttime scenes, for example, are illuminated only by the flickering glow of candles. This setup has also allowed Eggers and Blaschke to capture the unmistakeable and hard-to-fake look of a forest at dusk, when the faces of those only a couple metres away from us straddle the line between distinct and shadow. When utilized in a first-person perspective—as a few scenes are framed—it places us right in the thick of scenarios we really would really rather not be in. Blaschke also likes drawing out his shots—no sweeping long takes, but still framing that allows the performances to breathe, tension to build, and music to develop.

On that note, I can’t go any further without praising the film’s musical score, composed by Mark Korven (Cube). Listening to “Caleb’s Seduction,” which scores the movie’s most drawn out and scariest scene, I hear almost direct quotes from György Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna,” famously used during the Moon sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, though Korven blends the ethereal voices with the harsh strings he leaves as his signature throughout the soundtrack. His more climactic cues include frantic, clattering percussion and even an atonal, arrhythmic choir of Enochian(!) voices. Where Blaschke’s cinematography uses stillness to stretch each moment to its breaking point, Korven’s score is the momentum that pushes the movie forward. I’m reminded of how Paul Thomas Anderson utilized Jonny Greenwood’s score in There Will Be Blood—indeed, I can hear more than a little of Greenwood’s inspiration along with Ligeti’s. I’m confident in saying it’s the best soundtrack I’ve heard since Disasterpeace’s for It Follows, and I’m ecstatic it’s available to stream on Spotify.

More than a few reviewers have drawn comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining and I see where they’re coming from: a family in an isolated setting, a gradually unhinged and dangerous father/husband figure, and very human violence with supernatural influence. A pivotal sequence is a shot-for-shot homage to one of The Shining’s most famous scenes. But where Kubrick’s haunted house saga stumbles in regards to acting and character development, Eggers’ debut passes with flying colours. The maudlin performances Kubrick got out of his actors through repetition, exhaustion and, we must remember, sheer psychological abuse are nowhere to be found here. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, William doesn’t look like he’s about to snap the moment he pops up on screen, and even after he takes his deep dive into fundamentalism he still has moments of genuine guilt and vulnerability.

The Witch made me feel deeply uncomfortable, as much if not more so than Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton’s YellowBrickRoad. Like YellowBrickRoad, this particular brand of horror doesn’t bring its characters together through acts of survival-driven altruism but instead pushes them apart. Massive, irreparable rifts are driven between its characters even before The Witch’s traumatic final act, the moral horror so thick the film’s title is almost a misnomer. It features a witch, to be certain, but her role is that of a catalyst, a crone sowing seeds of destruction; it’s not difficult at all to imagine the family’s ordeal would be much more manageable were it not for William’s zealotry and their culture’s Puritan ideals. By the time the end credits rolled I felt not only horrified but exhausted—the very same exhaustion I imagine one of its characters must feel when they make a momentous decision in the penultimate scene.

(Also one scene features trismus, also known as lockjaw, a condition I briefly had when I suffered from a peritonsillar abscess last spring. This bit got to me more than any gore could have.)

The last two years have been a boon to horror cinema, but while blockbusters like The Conjuring are fine enough entertainment you’re missing out if you’re only hitting up your local megaplex. The very best the genre has had to offer recently—The Babadook, It Follows and now The Witch—have stuck mainly to the festival circuit and to smaller, independent theatres. The showing of The Witch I was lucky enough to get tickets for was one of exactly two in Ottawa, and now I have to wait for the Blu Ray release—whenever that is—before I can subject my friends to it.

No comments: