The Witch

 photo witch_ver3_zpsv3zoodmn.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgBleak supernatural horror about a Calvinist household in 17th-century New England. Faith is an important part of their life as father frequently cites scripture. Right at the start, he dismisses those in the community as false Christians and so he and his family are banished from the village. The specifics of the disagreement over beliefs is never explicitly stated, but given the family’s devout commitment we can only assume they were too strict. Was that even possible in Puritan society? The clan is comprised of Father William (Ralph Ineson) his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). After a time they welcome the arrival of a fifth child, baby Samuel.

Initially the narrative suggests that their lack of money and failed crops could be the reason for their downward descent. But as time wears on, more definable tragedies torment the group. These events give rise to the idea that oldest daughter Thomasin could be an evil presence. These allegations, made by family members, have an effect on her psyche. The first sign that things are amiss is the fate of infant Samuel. While under Thomasin’s care, the baby vanishes from sight the moment her eyes are closed during a game of peekaboo. Later her frustration with the unruly twins’ behavior causes her to make an assertion she later regrets. The film’s main protagonist seems to fluctuate at first but Thomasin ultimately emerges as the lead.

The Witch is a beautifully realized period piece. A carefully constructed, deeply researched drama that utilizes the language of the time. A postscript informs the audience that the dialogue was inspired by court transcripts of the 1630s. To the contemporary ear it sounds just like Shakespeare. That would be the vocabulary of the Elizabethan era, but Jacobean is more accurate since this is the early 17th century. The spirit of the prose keenly enhances the atmosphere. Yet the isolation of their existence speaks louder than any words. The eerie hostility of the early American frontier is as nasty as a villain. The gloom of the surrounding forest takes on a malevolent nature. Even the animals like a goat they’ve named Black Phillip, and a beady-eyed rabbit who pops out of the forest, take on demonic overtones.

The Witch is a dark tale of foreboding. The austere, almost grim, daily existence is maintained throughout. Most modern viewers have a mixed understanding of Puritan society. Life in New England was a completely different world over three hundred years ago. It was a harsh reality. The Witch is set some 60 years before the Salem witch trials famously dramatized in The Crucible. Certainly the story recalls those historical events, but there are distinct differences. Arthur Miller’s play revealed how paranoia can spread to create mass hysteria in a community. Writer/director Robert Eggers chooses to depict the growing fear as it affects only one family – a close-knit group, separated from civilization. Another contrast is that the conspicuous rise in bizarre occurances would seem to justify their fears. There is definitely something sinister afoot, although the lies that follow undeniably tear them further apart. Director Eggers doesn’t rely on the traditional tools of the horror genre. This is more of a thought-provoking mood piece rooted in the Jacobean dialect of the times. As such, the deliberate pace won’t charm today’s audiences raised on physical shocks. However those partial to slavish attention to detail will find much favor here. This engrossing saga of a Puritan family’s worst nightmare is extremely artistic. That makes the thiller rather unique in this day and age.

02-18-16

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27 Responses to “The Witch”

  1. Yes indeed. I really really liked this. It doesn’t seem many others have though. Critics have adored it, while audiences are scoffing. One guy beside me literally did just that when the film finally finished. It kind of annoyed me at first but as I thought about it later, The Witch makes absolutely no concessions for modern audiences “raised on physical shock.” I think thats why I liked it so much, it’s so different. And it’s a February release, at that!

    • I totally understand why mainstream audiences haven’t enjoyed this. It scored a C- on Cinemascore but honestly I thought it might do worse. Horror films often get harsh grades. I side with the critics on this one.

  2. Truly an unsettling film. The finale left me speechless. It’s the most haunting film I’ve seen in years.

  3. Great review! I wasn’t sure whether the movie is worth checking out, but now I’m convinced =)

  4. Great review, and you have some really nice analysis. The puritan aspect really piqued my interest,and to infuse it with horror that’s so real in our daily lives,makes it even more interesting. On my to-watch list!

  5. This movie was such a delight and so incredibly scary! The majority of my audience was very disappointed (“THAT SUCKED! etc etc.)…it’s definitely not for major audiences.

    • Just the fact that only a select few “get it” makes the movie even more special to me. I suspect over the years, The Witch will be reassessed as being undervalued at the time of release. It happened with The Shining.

  6. Great review! I am so looking forward to this, been reading about this movie since it premiered on Sundance last year

    • Thanks. It did very well at Sundance in Jan 2015 where it won the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category.

      Speaking of Sundance, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was the big hit this year (Grand Jury Prize).

  7. Nice review, Mark; love your prose here. Very, very excited to see this one – even given the silly controversy around its reception by ‘horror fans.’

    • Yes those pesky Cinemascore audiences gave it a C-. Honestly, I can understand why, because it’s not “scary” per se. Its charms are a bit more subtle.

      Not for everyone apparently but I enjoyed it.

  8. Great review, Mark. Loved the point of their isolation. I thought on how the hysteria affected just this family was interesting, too. I gave this one a 4.5/5. I thought it was really entrancing.

  9. abbiosbiston Says:

    As good as this review is, the trailer scared the sweet bejesus out of me and I don’t think I can watch this!

    • I didn’t find it that scary which is why I think some horror fans have reacted negatively to it. I still enjoyed it. I guess The Witch will affect each person differently.

  10. Great review that makes me want to see it.

  11. Very eerie and creepy. Had such a dark mood, which made it pretty scary. 4 stars

  12. Hi Mark. Reader from the UK here. Excellent reviews, and of the films I have seen, pretty much agree with most of what you say so I’ll be taking your advice before seeing new movies in future!

    Just one quick comment, found this site through your review on Rotten Tomatoes of this movie (The Witch). In that review, you included the line “Life in New England was a completely different world over three hundred years ago”. As an ironic, sarcastic Brit, I found that line hilarious. If you ever do an online history course, do let me know – I have a lot to learn from you!

    But the film reviews are great!

    • Wait? Did I get the time period wrong. My history may be off. Wasn’t this set during the 17th century in New England? I’m thinking around 1632 which would be well over 300 years ago.

  13. EVAN CREAN Says:

    I agree that The Witch is a beautifully realized period piece that’s carefully constructed and deeply researched. The isolation of this family’s existence does speak louder than words and the frontier serves as a nasty villain. I was a big fan of the movie. Although I was challenged by the language in the film. I’m not sure if it was the audio in the theater or just the quietness of the dialogue, but I had a hard time following that portion. Otherwise I thought the movie was suspenseful and artistic.

    • I had the same issue when I saw this at the theater.

      Occasionally when I’m at home, I’ll watch a movie with the captions on because the version of English they’re speaking is hard to understand. Snatch is a perfect example. This movie is another one.

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