Saturday, February 20, 2016

Film Review: The Witch (2016)

Note: I haven't done a full film review in quite some time, though I might do them on a more regular basis if I start to enjoy doing them again. I thought this film was worth writing about, and had to get my thoughts on it down somewhere. Anyways, I give you my thoughts on The Witch!

Why aren't there more horror films set during Colonial America? It was a time of upheaval and religious reformation, not to mention a period when colonists faced living on an entirely different continent, which sparked fears of the unknown and fueled superstitions, all the while early settlers endured unimaginable hardships in their fierce fight for survival. All these frightening experiences that colonists went through seem so ripe for horror movies, since many are about facing basic fears. It's really a pity we don't have more period piece horror films, because The Witch is an example of how well horror works in a historical context.

In 1630's New England a family is banished from a settlement and determinedly set out for the wilderness to start anew, alone. The family consists of father William (Ralph Ineson), mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and baby Samuel. Together they establish a small farm on the edge of a dense forest, but when baby Samuel is snatched by a supernatural evil lurking in the woods, despair and panic envelope the family. Soon, crops begin to fail, the other children are threatened, goat's milk turns to blood, and suspicions of witchcraft began to mount.

It is best to go into this film knowing as little as possible. I saw The Witch Thursday night, and besides seeing the trailers I tried to avoid seeing/reading much about it at all. I wanted my own experience, and didn't want to hold any expectations for the film going into it. So please, if you have yet to see this film consider stopping here and reading no further. I don't give any spoilers away below, but it really is best to have no preconceived notions before seeing The Witch. If you do want to read what I thought, continue reading...

Writer and director Robert Eggers has created an enchantingly dark fairytale with The Witch, and his attention to detail is staggering. The historical detail is exactly that, detailed, down to the corsets and thatched roofs, not to mention the dialects, language structure and grammar of the time period, and the religious beliefs that shaped the characters' worldviews (you can read more about his in-depth research for the film here).

Eggers also summoned perfect performances from his cast, especially the younger actors. The young apple-cheeked twins, played by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson, are both obnoxiously adorable and creepy, while Anya Taylor-Joy plays the beleaguered Thomasin with a maturity well beyond her years. The rest of the cast was fantastic, too, from Ralph Ineson's weary and increasingly desperate father to Kate Dickie's grieving but cold mother, to Harvey Scrimshaw as the faithful son and brother Caleb. Oh, and I can't fail to mention Black Phillip himself...what a delight HE was!

From the first few minutes of the film Eggers envelopes the audience in a fog of dread that never lifts. The oppressive atmosphere of the film kept me on the edge of my seat the whole running time. Not only is it is beautifully filmed (um, can I go live there?), but each frame seems to drip with doom (the eerie score really helps, too). And things really get off with a bang as a shocking scene early on lets you know that this film isn't messing around and is something much more than just a pretty picture. There are no lame jump scares, no overly graphic scenes, instead, The Witch creeps under your skin and maddeningly fills you with an unease you can't seem to shake.

I love how The Witch explores primordial fears - fear of the unknown and the dark, fear of nature or what stalks the deep wilderness, fear of isolation  and being alone. Put yourself in early settlers' shoes, and imagine you have left your home in Europe to settle a strange land. The wilderness presses in on all sides, foreboding and dark, and your only defense against whatever lurks there would be those around you, unless they decide to turn on you as well. The film shadows these base fears, and heightens them with images of flickering candlelight barely keeping the dark at bay, getting lost among endless rows of trees, fields shrouded in fog, and the stark, unforgiving wilderness.

On top of all that, throw in the Puritan religious worldview, which included the Calvinist belief in predestination and the belief in the active existence of demonic forces (which most all Christians believed during this time period). Temptation into sin by the Devil was a very real fear during this time, and The Witch effortlessly weaves these worldviews and how the characters struggled with uncertain redemption into the narrative.

I should also mention that the film delves into the dilemmas faced by young women of that time - how they were expected to obey and do all their family asked, even if it meant becoming a servant for another household. If they were rebellious or disobeyed, they were treated as if they were going against the very Word of God, and people went to far as to accuse them of consorting with the Devil and witchcraft. And even if you did everything right, someone simply accusing you of witchcraft could cost you your livelihood, get you exiled, or get you killed. I loved how freedom from patriarchy is explored at the end of the film, where shackles are cast off and feminine freedom is finally expressed.

As you can see, The Witch gives you plenty to think about. I saw it Thursday night, and I am still processing it all. I'm sure that there are even more layers to The Witch than mentioned above, but before I ramble on any more, know that I loved it. And though I loved it, it isn't a film for everyone. In the theater I saw it in, the crowd was mostly guys, and of course some bro-types expressed their displeasure at the end of the movie. I don't know what they were expecting, but it wasn't the dark fairytale we watched unfold on-screen. For me though, its unsettling atmosphere, gloomy beauty, and historical context made it an absolutely spellbinding experience, and one I highly recommend.

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