Monday, February 22, 2016

The First Witch Hunter

Year: 2016
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes 
MPAA Rating: R

It’s that time of year again. A wildly hyped arthouse horror film has hit the national stage with triumphant fanfare, ready to receive a merciless box office lashing. Two years ago it was Jennifer Kent’s chilling tale of motherhood gone sour, The Babadook. Then came the methodically crafted, variably successful sexual parable It Follows. This year we have The Witch, a contemplative New England folk tale from first-time director Robert Eggers. While I’m overjoyed that these very small, very cerebral horror films are finding audiences in a big way, setting these films up as “the scariest movie in a generation” destines them to failure and disappointment.

I mean, shouldn’t we have learned by now that Stephen King will give a blurb to pretty much anything? He’d regale a box of Corn Pops as “a triumph of terror” as long as it wasn’t directed by Stanley Kubrick. I’m not attempting to diminish the horror of the Witch in any way, which is very frequently visceral and overwhelming. However, my advice is to approach it devoid of any expectation one way or the other. I would hate to see another solid genre picture suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous hype.

Or by opposing, end its theatrical run.

In The Witch, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the eldest daughter of a British family in colonial New England. They have been banished from the nearby town due to her father William’s (Ralph Ineson) fervent, bordering on maniacal religious beliefs and are now struggling to subsist on a small farm perched on the edge of the forest, a gaping maw of wilderness the children are forbidden to enter. When the baby Samuel is snatched away by an unseen force while under Thomasin’s care, thus begins a period of turmoil and suspicion in the family.

As tensions rise between Thomasin, her father, her distraught mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), her lustful brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the irritating twins Mercy (Ellie Graner) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), they begin to suspect their misfortune may be the result of witchcraft. Does a witch wander the wood, or is the treachery coming from within the family itself?

And will Sabrina ever get to go to the prom with Harvey?

The thing that immediately springs to mind when describing The Witch is that it’s very intentional. By that I mean that every aspect of the film is there for a reason, painstakingly placed to evoke a certain sensation. This is not a director who’s asleep at the wheel. From the color palette to the sparse dialogue to the blighted set design, The Witch can not fail to make an impression. In fact, it’s the first film I’ve personally seen that makes a spectacle of its alternative aspect ratio (1.66:1, shout out to my film nerds), practically screaming for you to notice that it’s just a little off from your standard American theatrical release.

However, intention and reception are very different beasts. While I can clearly see and respect the decision-making behind every aesthetic choice made in The Witch, I for one am not personally inclined to receive their messages in quite the way I’m meant to. Let me clarify. Take The Witch’s color palette, an elegantly bleak, nearly monochrome effort that leaches all color from the frame, leaving behind only a handful of dull greys. It’s an impressive technique, akin to creating a living charcoal sketch, but it fails to capture the eye.

The act of watching The Witch is an act of permanent frustration and struggle to focus on any image in the frame. This is clearly meant to foster a sense of oppression, blurring the lines of reality and driving home the cruel monotony of the family’s stranglehold on Thomasin’s life. However, it’s also a vexing distraction, making it nigh-on impossible to remain  engaged with the story. It constantly draws attention to its own artifice, which is a severe miscalculation in a film so devoted to historical accuracy.

God, that was verbose. Can you tell I’ve been reading Shakespeare again?

One more thing before I stop being so glum about The Witch: As much as I loathe when a film is discredited by its accents, the Yorkshire brogue that these actors spit out is nearly impenetrable, bolstered by the tough steel of their Olde English speech patterns. This is not a detraction, just a warning: Don’t check your brain at the door. You’re going to need it to crack the Enigma Code of the dialogue.

All that said, The Witch is an extremely unique movie that benefits greatly in how it differs from mainstream American horror. It’s a deliberately paced mood piece that aims to shock through barely-glimpsed horrors and unnatural images. Rather than being a jump scare jack-in-the-box, it relies on eerie situations so ontologically wrong that they cause the blood to boil. Mind you, the snowball doesn’t get to clobbering size until it has rolled for quite some time, but the earlier slow boil scenes are so wracked with heightened atmosphere that it proves effective if you have the patience to suffer its visual abrasiveness.

The single element that best sells the mood of the film is the cast, every member of which is uniformly terrific, even – God help me – the children. Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, and Ralph Ineson are equals in off-kilter character building, ramping up the tension with almost unbearably immediate, human performances. But for me, the biggest surprise was Harvey Scrimshaw, who can’t possibly be able to understand all the implications of his character at his tender age, but plays his part to the hilt, nailing every nuance with inhuman precision.

The Witch is an intelligent and visually bold horror film that brings something elegant and classical to the market, and I wish it every success. It’s more exciting to think about than to actually sit through, but for what it’s worth, it’s a bona fide work of art (with all the divisiveness that that entails), an astounding directorial debut for a filmmaker who, if he can keep this up, should land himself a place on every cinephile’s watchlist.

TL;DR: The Witch is a well-crafted, tense work with an intensely frustrating aesthetic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1053


  1. Aw, I liked it a fair amount more than thee, B; of all the feted horror films of the last couple of year, I think it's the best of the bunch. It never loses its train of thought, unlike It Follows or The Babadook, and it isn't impenetrable, like Under the Skin, and it isn't offensively bad, like Spring. (It's also not offensively offensive, like The Conjuring, despite taking on the same subject matter.) In a lot of ways, it's the most pretentious of all of them; in some, it's actually the least, since it follows a pretty standard horror structure.

    But then, I liked the way it was shot. Dunno what the 1.66:1 aspect ratio was about, but I thought it was very well lit at night, and there was a rhyme and reason to its dour gray daytime scenes.

    I'm sure it also helps immeasurably that I had no real trouble understanding anybody. I expected to find a family of Tom Hardys. I thought they were at least more articulate than that! I don't begrudge anyone having trouble with those accents, but I like stuff like that, when they go to the trouble to recreating period speech or outright dead languages, e.g. Apocalypto or The Passion of the Christ. On the other hand, those movies are far more visually driven, and this one's a lot more conversational, so encrypted communications could easily be an issue.

    1. Oh, and when shall we hail Caesar, Brennan? I've been looking forward to reading your thoughts on that!

    2. Soon, young Hunter. I've been extraordinarily busy at work during the lead-in to the Oscars. Hail, Caesar is coming soon, shortly after an embarrassing amount of Blumhouse reviews.