A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic, and possession.A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic, and possession.A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic, and possession.
I'm not what you'd call a fan of horror movies. I don't gravitate toward the genre and I almost never seek horror movies out in theaters. That said, any movie that garners critical acclaim or positive buzz piques my interest as a fan of cinema on the whole. "The Witch" lives in that territory as a horror movie for cinephiles, not for audiences who love the thrill of a good scare.
That's not to say "The Witch" isn't scary; it is. It's just not scary in the modern trend-driven, formulaic, "movie trailer that ends with a jump-scare" kind of way. Writer and director Robert Eggers, who makes his feature film debut, builds his terror with tension drama and mystery, not by creating the pervasive sense that some creepy thing will pop into the frame at any moment.
Eggers, a production designer first and foremost, builds his "Puritan nightmare" from the ground up, starting with all the tiniest era-appropriate details in the set, costumes and even dialogue. It doesn't take a historian to notice the immaculate craftsmanship and consideration of time and place. Eggers' devotion to this realism pays off in that the "The Witch" never loses its footing in reality even as more supernatural elements creep into the story. Well, until the end, but let's not go there except to say that by then, the realism matters much less.
The story follows a Puritan family that leaves its plantation and village over religious differences and goes off to build a home near the edge of the woods. Suddenly, the family infant, Sam, disappears under the watch of the eldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). The incident devastates the mother (Kate Dickie) and father (Ralph Ineson), who convince everyone it was a wolf that took Sam, but the tragedy trickles down to the four children, Thomasin, pre-teen Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and young twins Jonas and Mercy. Of course, the audience is privy to what actually happened to Sam, and we know things will only get worse for the family.
Considering the legitimate Puritan fear of Satan and witches, the subsequent events begin to tear into the family dynamics, which adds to the tension that already exists over what unnerving thing might happen next. The story could definitely have gone deeper into distrust and paranoia, but then it might have become too much of a "witch trial" movie.
The way the movie ends will draw no shortage of opinions, but without a doubt, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke have made an and utterly engrossing film that would be just as effective had it just been a period drama instead of a horror film – from a visual standpoint. Blaschke works almost exclusively with available natural light, which in addition to bolstering Eggers' emphasis on realism, keeps the specter of darkness and evil hanging over the family. In fact, had the film not marketed itself so overtly as a horror film, it might have been given more awards consideration.
Regardless, Eggers delivers a remarkable feature debut that's a definite breakthrough candidate; he will certainly have a lot of eyes on his future projects. His focus on detail and strong cinematic instincts could work wonders on a more mainstream project, but if he opts for more small-budget genre films, no complaints here.
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- Jan 16, 2017