| A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.
Writer/Director Robert Eggers directorial debut delivers full on its promise with a slow burning historical tale of external evil. The story involves a puritan family ousted from the safety of their colony into a life of corn-crunching hardship in the fertile land of New England’s past. But deep in the forest lurks an unspeakably evil force that wastes no time instigating a plan of destruction for its unsuspecting neighbours. There’s no neglect from the harsh day-to- day realities & tensions of these new/olde’ puritans existence, but Eggers’ screenplay never loses focus on their humanity as a real living and loving family unit either. As the hubris of ingrained faith begins to tear them apart from within, the dynamics of the story stubbornly refuses to make a snide, so that we always care about their survival even when it looks like things are heading to the point of no return.
The work in The Witch is magnificently elevated. It is a tonal masterpiece. From the beginning montage to the ending’s chillingly satisfying final image, you can see the meticulous calculation that went into the making of this movie (which was made on a budget of just $3.5 million). Even if, and I am certain of it, nothing here will be noticed by such a sanitized society like the Academy or an immature audience seeking cheap thrills, the fact remains that everything on display in The Witch is of master-class craftsmanship. The choice of 1.66:1 aspect ratio, a highly subtle effect, is most likely responsible for much of the film’s highlights and weaves a strongly claustrophobic environment. Many of the shots are close-ups on characters’ faces or their backs, a technique that seems to be gaining popularity as shown by last year’s phenomenal ‘Son of Saul’. The camera rarely expands beyond the intimacy of our characters’ personal spaces and this creates a sense of attachment and empathy wherein the viewer experiences a feeling of active participation rather than safe and casual outside observance.
| “Corruption, thou art my father!”
The gray and murky environment is rich in flavor which accentuates on the film’s aesthetic of a “folk tale”. The sky is overcast, and the trees in the woods are all stripped of leaves, remaining tall imposing husks that are easy to get lost in. The aesthetic and environment are almost like characters themselves in The Witch, hearkening back to Eastern European tales of the macabre or the Grimm Brothers. And like a classical folk tale, subtlety is key here. You will find no obnoxious jump scares or cheap gore in this movie.
The heavy immersion power of The Witch is pulled along by the small cast of characters who luckily, are mostly unknown. I personally recognized no one besides Kate Dickie from Game of Thrones but this was nothing distracting. It is easier to sympathize with people whose faces you aren’t familiar with, rather than thinking to yourself, “wow, Leo is doing great work here”. This holds immersion for the viewer, and because the cast was enormously talented, nothing broke that immersion or tension. The 17th century script the cast works with is written with great care and effort and remains understandable (even as they speak in the Old English language), creating no barriers between the film and the audience. Thomasin is brought to life with full autonomy by Anya Taylor-Joy, who as a first time actress, delivered a surprisingly seasoned performance. She is assisted by Ralph Ineson who gives an equally dedicated performance as the father William. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was Harvey Scrimshaw’s progressively improving performance as Caleb. A performance that really stole a handful of crucial scenes almost seamlessly.
Like ‘Under The Skin’, the music in The Witch is just haunting and uneasy to listen to and really plays a huge part in creating the eerie atmosphere and tension effectively. The eerier aspects of the iconic soundtracks for 2001 and The Shining are gleefully aped by composer Mark Korven’s score. His music enhances the outlandish finale to such a spine tingling degree, you almost feel as though you looked behind the magic curtain to witness one of the world’s best kept secrets.
Overall, “The Witch” is a surprising and moody entry in the horror genre for 2016. It is not only recalling classicism in its period setting and narrative, but also in its cinematic approach to storytelling. A slow paced psychological horror movie that perhaps unintentionally marketed itself as an epic monster piece that are full of scares. The Witch isn’t full of scares, although the concepts behind it are scary. It is a mellow piece that builds tension over time and where the cinematography is beautiful and the writing matches its time period. It’s horror done right. It even has some great social commentary, on how being too deep in any kind of religion can do a lot of psychological harm to individuals and families (the Satanic Temple even enthusiastically endorsed this movie). I’m blown away by Eggers’ directorial debut and can’t wait to see what he does next.