Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Witch Movie Review

As a first time feature film maker, Robert Egger demonstrates a skilled and assured hand at how to handle material that is delicate on several fronts. The Witch, which he wrote and directed, deals with puritanical religious dogma of the seventeenth century, witchcraft, and also the conventions of horror and psychological thrillers. So much could have gone wrong in setting a tone and a pace, but Eggers gets most of it right.

For starters, he set his film nearly four centuries ago in New England. As such the dialogue, much of which is taken from contemporaneous transcripts and texts, contains a style that, to the ears of a 21st century American, sounds like something out of a restoration village where actors pretend they know nothing about modern technology. Also the family at the center of the movie, who have been banished from the village for “prideful conceit”, exercise such deep religious conviction that we might feel uncomfortable laughter coming on. But the events that transpire are no laughing matter.

This may not be horror as it’s come to be known. The shocks and startles are almost non-existent. Even the presence of a bogeyman (or woman) is in some doubt. The family consists of William (Ralph Ineson), the father with a hard face and rough voice, Katherine (Kate Dickie) the pious mother, and five children. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the eldest on whose watch baby Samuel disappears almost before her eyes during a game of peekaboo. Caleb is about twelve and twins Jonas and Mercy are about five. Suspicion and doubt fall on everyone as witchcraft is suspected. The family’s piety is so deep that they are too quick to turn on one another under the misguided belief that one among them has brought the devil into the home. And that prideful conceit rears its ugly head in a mother and a father so firm in their beliefs that their love of God is so pure that they could not possibly be the cause. Perhaps therein lies the answer. The book of Proverbs warns that the prideful will be brought to bear and torn asunder. That’s just what happens to this family as their situation becomes ever more dour, confusing, and frightening.

But even without the jump scares, Eggers still directs the action in a way that generates unease. His camera holds its gaze and considers the forest at the edge of the family plot. He regards the ugly naked form of a woman doing ghastly things in her cottage with quiet and shrouded in candlelit darkness. Mark Korven’s musical score uses atonal strings and the moans of choral voices. I was at times reminded of the unsettling music in 2001: A Space Odyssey at the appearance of the monolith.

It’s the unknown that brings the real horror in The Witch. Is a family member in covenant with the devil? Is Black Phillip, their goat, Satan’s representative? When the twins talk to him is it a child’s game or something sinister? And what about the crone in the cottage or the beautiful woman who tempts Caleb in the forest? Are they real or the machinations of imaginative minds that seek to cast the shadow of the devil on all wrong doing?

Most interesting of all that Eggers has achieved is that he’s crafted a story that can be viewed by people of faith as a warning for what can go wrong if one has faith without grace or without humility. We might see this family as being punished for the sins of conceit vis-à-vis their adherence to dogma rather than true faith. On the other hand, you can read their fate as the inevitable psychological torment that comes from isolation (which in this family’s case is doubled through their separation from England and then from their settler village) and the suspicious belief that there’s always something out there looking to harm you. This is a family that tears itself apart through the process of trying so hard to hold it together.

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