Sunday, February 21, 2016

THE WITCH Is A Triumphant, Nightmarish Look at American Evil

 THE WITCH Review:

- If THE WITCH was not a horror movie ... it would still be one hell of a period-piece drama. The film recreates 17th century New England in stunning detail, from the clothes to the homes to the dialect - painstakingly based off of actual writings from the era. The movie starkly, vividly depicts life in the New World - we see the toll it takes on early settlers, and how they cling to puritanical faith in order to give order to the chaos of life in the still-untamed land. We see the gender politics at play, and the way the family unit works together to provide food and shelter and sustenance. THE WITCH is one of the most immersive, almost documentary-like depictions of this era that we've seen in a movie. But it is also a horror movie. And it's one of the creepiest, most affecting, most hardcore horror movies I've seen. This isn't a movie that feels the need to shock you with jump scares or gore - no, this is another in the recent string of great indie horror movies that creep you out with slow-burn scares and an overpowering sense of dread. Movies like House of the Devil, The Babadook, and It Follows did it. But THE WITCH may well be the new king of indie horror. Scratch that - the new king of horror. THE WITCH is a film so good, so bone-chillingly *evil*, that it raises the bar for the modern horror movie to an extent that's going to be very, very hard to top.

THE WITCH makes writer/director Robert Eggers an instant person-to-watch in the world of film. This is his feature film debut - and, holy crap! - what a debut it is. Visually, THE WITCH is stunning. Having grown up in a small, fairly rural town in New England, I can say without hesitation that Eggers perfectly captures the feel of the region. The greyness. The darkness. The woods. Even today, New England kids are taught to fear the woods - so I can only imagine what it was like in the 1600's. But the woods of THE WITCH are spot-on - dangerous, terrifying, mysterious. If you go in those woods, you had better be prepared. The woods loom all around the movie's central family - and they represent the literal and metaphorical danger that surrounds and threatens to envelop them. Eggers' film looks amazing, but he also smartly paces the movie deliberately - creating a perpetual feeling of creeping dread. But certain images in the movie are instantly-iconic. Eggers brilliantly uses his storytelling abilities to make even seemingly innocuous creatures - a small rabbit, for example - seem creepy as hell. The movie builds and builds and builds. And when the big moments of hardcore, satanic terror come - they come hard and no punches are pulled. That said, one of the smartest things that Eggers does is that he quickly establishes that there is indeed a witch in this movie - a witch who is in command of some seriously evil black magic, and is not to be messed with. It's brilliant because the ensuing paranoia that results between our main characters feels all the more futile and misguided, knowing as we do that the real evil of the movie lurks just beyond their grasp. Again, this *could* have been a really good movie about paranoia and "witch-hunts" in the Salem Witch Trials sense. But the fact that it is that - but *also* a movie about a real, really evil, in-league-with-Satan witch - well, that just cranks things up to another level.

The way that Eggers chooses to quickly reveal the presence of the witch, even while keeping her exact nature and motives mysterious - also speaks to the strength of the movie's script. The witch's presence informs the movie from start to finish, and leads to some absolutely holy-$%&# moments of supernatural craziness. And yet, so much of the substance of the film actually comes from the central family members - and the slowly-rising tension bubbling up to the surface and threatening to tear them apart. In the opening scenes of the film, we see William - the family patriarch - and his wife and children, kicked out of the New Hampshire settlement that they called home. The reasons are not entirely clear, but we're led to believe it has something to do with William's strict religious convictions. William lives a life in servitude to God - with an unyielding devotion to the word of the Bible, with an almost fanatical level of orthodoxy. His wife is cut from a similar cloth, and William's children, too, have been taught to adopt their parents' devoutness. However, the combined hardships of life on an isolated farm and encroaching adolescence are creating tension. William's pre-teen son Caleb is growing up, and his older sister Thomasin is on the verge of adulthood. For these kids, adolescence means more than just hormones (though those are there too) - there's also the question of their place in the family unit. For their parents, there's an almost palpable fear of their children growing up - the loss of innocence is seen as the gaining of wickedness. William and his wife Katherine now have reason to look at their once-cherubic children with suspicion - and that sense of tension only adds to the paranoia to come. Suffice it to say, Eggers' script brilliantly pits these characters against one another - and uses the fact that their piety makes even a simple white lie (in their minds) an act of true wickedness to great dramatic effect. Eggers also smartly highlights the feminist aspects of his story. So much of the real-life fear of witchcraft had to do with fear-of-femininity. In THE WITCH, Thomasin's status as a teenage girl is a source of fear for her parents. They equate her growing independence and womanhood with wickedness. And so it is that she becomes persecuted not just by the witch in the woods, but by her own family.

Speaking of Thomasin - she is played by an actress named Anya Taylor-Joy - and she is jaw-droppingly good. Taylor-Joy deserves to be huge - and she just might be after her stunning turn in THE WITCH. It's hard to go into too much detail without spoiling things ... but I will only say that Taylor-Joy skillfully and breathtakingly takes Thomasin on an emotional journey that is absolutely harrowing. This is total breakthrough, Oscar-worthy stuff. The rest of the main cast is equally exceptional. Ralph Ineson has appeared on Game of Thrones, but I was not really familiar with him going into THE WITCH. He's fantastic here as William. From my earlier description, William may have sounded like an oppressive patriarch and not-so-great father. But Ineson makes William a truly great, multifaceted character - a man who loves his children and who would do anything to support his family, but whose faith often blinds him towards the more complex emotional truths that his family must face. Kate Dickie is also pretty amazing as matriarch Katherine - a woman whose hopes and dreams had to be put aside in the name of sheer survival. Dickie provides a toughness and emotional depth - even amidst moments of hurt and frailty - that make Katherine a great character. Harvey Scrimshaw also turns in a memorable performance as young Caleb. Caleb is at the center of some of the movie's craziest, scariest scenes - and Scrimshaw pulls them off with wild success. In any case, I'm not exaggerating when I say that all of the central performances in THE WITCH are truly astounding - and though they will likely be overlooked come next awards-season, I would deem them more than award-worthy.

THE WITCH has a crazy-good cast, a smart and layered script, and gorgeously haunting visuals that are pure nightmare-fuel. But it is also, plain and simple, one of the most bone-chilling horror films in many, many years. The movie taps into real-life folklore to give us images, moments, and iconography that are likely already buried deep in our cultural DNA - and it plays off of those long-passed-down fears with style and a deeply-felt desire to scare the daylights out of its audience. The result is a movie that feels evil to its core, in a way that few films likely have since The Exorcist first freaked out audiences. There is one moment - towards the end of the film - where it really felt like we as viewers were staring down into the very heart of darkness. THE WITCH gazes into that deep, dark abyss and dares us to embrace the evil. And it does so with the backdrop of an historical era in which such mystical evil was considered all too real - giving the entire film a nightmarish, you-are-there quality. 

THE WITCH is a brilliant horror film, but it's also just a brilliant film - period. An absolute masterpiece that examines both the evil man creates and the evil that lies beyond our ability to comprehend. This is one that kept me glued to the screen, mesmerized and hypnotized. This was one hell of a film - in every sense of the word. Go see it. 

My Grade: A

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