The Witch – 2016
Writer & Director Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Julian Richings, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Wahap Chaudhry
It’s a raw film that feels every bit of the gravity of living and more. There is no such thing as a light heart in Thomasin’s (Taylor-Joy) Puritanical Christian Family. From the start of the story, they are in a bad way, being banished from their plantation for the patriarch William’s “prideful conceit.” He takes this exactly in the way that his punishers would expect: head held high and not looking back. After having established themselves in a farm next to a forest, things start to go wrong in a big way.
First, her newborn brother Samuel is taken literally from right under Thomasin, who is playing peek-a-boo with the child. It’s a haunting experience even as one can guess it will play out. The following scene is no less unsettling. At once, we understand there is a witch in the woods.
The family is shaken by the loss, but none more than the mother Katherine (Dickie). As she spends the day wailing and weeping in prayer, the rest of the family starts preparation for the onset of winter. The corn fields they are depending on are showing signs of disease, so they need to find other means. Father William (Ineson) and brother Caleb (Scrimshaw) spend some time out in the forest checking the trap they laid and hunting.
Thomasin is back at the house, taking care of young twins, who parade around the farm singing odd songs and speaking to one of the family’s goats, Black Phillip. Their presence has the feeling that mixes the uneasiness of the twins of The Shining with the curiosity of Danny Torrance. Sometimes it seems like they are in lock step with evil, sometimes they are scared as we are.
The film takes a turn here that I will not go into, other than to say the guilt and burden the two oldest children feel is something easy to relate to, having been raised Catholic. The sideways glances, the questions that remind one of the trappings of belief and the overall fear that you are going to be punished not just for your deeds, but for your thoughts and action. It’s a weight that no child should bear, but to believe the history books our nation was built on this ramshackle house of guilt. This is part of the strength of the film: it’s a story rooted in the American subconscious. Three distinct discussions William has: with Katherine, Thomasin and Caleb ring true and push the desperate truth about the rot that is taking hold of the family.
Beyond the economical, yet complex story that is presented, writer and director Eggers has some incredibly harrowing scenes that while conceivable, seem incredibly supernatural to the viewer, while the main characters are lost in the minutiae of living minute to minute. It’s a definite strength that we do not notice any special effects, when Eggers understands that just using the lens to capture the eyes of a living thing is enough.
The end arrives at a destination that is somewhat unexpected, yet makes sense upon contemplative reflection (thankfully not provided by annoying flashbacks). One can see it might have been the only thing that could have happened. Or maybe not.
It’s a sparse directing style that won’t appeal to all, but for those who can appreciate how scary just life in the brutal, isolated world can be, this movie will be a treat. My only reservation for the film is a soundtrack that seems obnoxious at times, but effective for the most part.
Next thing in the docket for Eggers is a remake of Nosferatu. I suppose this could be a good decision to give someone with an original eye, but I would prefer to mine his own ideas rather than rehash a road that’s been traveled already.
(****1/2 out of *****)