THE WITCH (2016)

The Witch

The Witch

Writer/Director: Robert Eggers

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Innerson, Katie Dick, Harvey Crimshaw, Lucas Dawson, Ellie Grainger

  “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

First, let’s realign expectations to alleviate misconceptions. The hype machine packaging the 2015 Sundance hit THE WITCH has focused solely on the horror element of this multi-faceted experience. It’s understandable that in order to gain exposure and profit, a tiny production (the budget was around 3.5 million) must latch onto whatever momentum building advertising is exploitable. When horror master and recognizable brand name Stephen King tweets “The Witch scared the hell out of me. And it’s a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral.” your campaign decision has already been made, and rightly so. However, labeling this immersive time capsule a horror film alone does a massive disservice to potential audiences. (It’s no different than relegating PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK to the horror genre and leaving it at that)

This is not to say THE WITCH does not conjure gnawing unnerving and unsettling reactions in the viewer, it does. Nor deny that when you leave the theatre the psychological repercussion as you explore the thematic weight of what you witnessed could be described as horrifying, it is. It just means the production has more texture and intent than those in search of a carnival ride splatter machine generally seek. This film is about immersion, not distraction. It requires participation, not just observation to become enveloped.

This film wants us to linger, to dwell within its meticulous authenticity both seen and unseen. Set in New England in the 1670’s, a few decades before the notorious Salem Witch Trials the painstakingly recreated log cabin architecture, Pilgrim clothing and transcribed language form the filmic foundation to a gateway back in time. Based on actual journals and documents of the age it’s easy to believe variations on this scenario (save a few obvious elements) were common place at the time.

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Making his feature debut Richard Egger’s masterfully stages then executes this slow burn period drama dripping in dread and sorrow with a sustained sense of absolute grounded realism. Existential ambiguities blur the puritanical perception dictating the realities of a family in spiritual and domestic crisis. The threat of supernatural malevolence serves as a heartbeat. Brimming with potent imagery, dialogue and atmosphere this is a cauldron of thematic layers that examine among other topics, historical religious fanaticism, patriarchal society and family dynamics and fear of female sexuality and individualism.

The cinematography, the rustic lighting shot through a mostly invisible voyeuristic lens uses shadows and framing to haunting effect. The dolly shots, the unbroken takes never drawing attention, just luring you in. Accompanied by the choral, harp score the crafting casts a surreal atmosphere that confidently unbalances.

The Witch anya Taylor-Joy

The naturalistic performances sprout ye olde English dialogue without a hint of artifice. The cast shape an intimacy, a barrier free window into their lives that is at times uncomfortable as the decent into madness takes hold.

The parents William and Katherine, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie totally convince as their sanity slips but it’s the 3 children in the cast that prove invaluable talents in maintaining the films illusions.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin the eldest child makes us sympathize, question, fear and want to protect her all at the same time. As the eldest son Caleb, Harvey Scrimshaw goes beyond his years in an unforgettable moment involving prayer and pain. Ellie Grainger playing Mercy and Lucas Dawson as Jonas bring a little more of Kubrick’s THE SHINING (a film that’s presence is felt more than once) to their twins while in no way playing the imitation game.

If I’m to flaw the film it’s that by the final credits many of the interpretive secrets are spelled out rather than eluded too. The ending still remains worthy of analysis but it also removes some of the compelling dramatic undercurrents that kept both feet on the ground.

It’s easy to see why certain audiences may be misled by what to expect from THE WITCH but I’m still perplexed by the reports of screenings being ruined by sneering and jeering attendees who are unable to engage with this impressive feat. I hope that these stories don’t stop those who want to seek it out from visiting the local cinema. The rewards are well worth it if this sounds like the type of cinema you’re looking for.

Watch the trailer and interviews below for more information on THE WITCH

Here’s the Sundance Film Festival Q&A with the cast and crew of THE WITCH

Warning: THE WITCH trailer is a smite spoiler heavy. Watch at your own risk.

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