“The Witch” Movie Review


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     It’s always interesting to see the product of a first time writer/director, as they tend to want to set themselves apart with their first outing and create something people will view as being original and thought provoking.  For better or worse, Robert Eggers has accomplished this and then some with his feature film debut “The Witch”, a self described 17th century New England folktale centering around a family settled at the edge of a forrest who is subsequently torn apart by the forces of witchcraft and possession.  It’s clear Eggers and his team went to great lengths in order to recreate the look and feel of the period, including the dialect spoken and the harsh, yet simple conditions these people lived in.  I think where distributors looking to maximize the profits of any given film go wrong is when films like “The Witch” are advertised in a manner suggesting the viewer should expect one thing, but ultimately get something else.  If you’ve viewed the trailer for “The Witch”, with near certainty the resulting take away will be that of a horror film with a clear antagonist taking the form of the film’s title.  Turns out “The Witch” is anything but.

     Eggers drenches the proceedings from the beginning with a somber tone which at every moment signals an overly abundant tone of dread.  As the weeks go by in the story, there is nary a ray of sunshine to be seen at anytime, as the humble farm home of the family we are following defines the very meaning of a melancholy setting.  Though the timeframe doesn’t appear to be winter, the trees are devoid of leaves and the overcast shade of the clouds, which seem to be hinting at precipitation, curiously look down upon areas which are bone dry.  This may explain why William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are having such a consistently tough time.  After being sent away permanently from the plantation he and his family had been living in, William is forced to take his family elsewhere and choose to settle on what he likely believed to be a fertile piece of land near the edge of a forrest.  There, he and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), their teenage daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and younger twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) live a simple life raising livestock and growing crops while attempting to feed the family with little money.

     As the film fast forwards beyond the moments in which they leave the plantation, we see William has constructed a small home for them to live, as well as fenced in areas for animals.  They also have welcomed a new member of the family, a baby boy named Samuel.  Caleb is beginning to approach the age where William takes him on hunting trips in an effort to find food for the family.  Thomasin, who appears to be about 16 years old, is utilized maybe too often by Katherine as someone who can do an abundance of house work, but who can also act as a babysitter for the two younger twins as well as the newborn.  As much as we see the rebellious nature of young people today, Eggers’ script ensures that commonly known behavior of teens was alive and well in the 1630s, back talk and all.  It’s as if Thomasin, like any girl her age, longs for something more than the simple and deeply religious life she was born into, and it becomes clear early on she may not continue along the path her parents have created for her.

     The film allows the audience plentiful time to become acquainted with the nuances of the life these people live, but also manages to insert a number of well placed creepy moments which function as a contribution to the slow burning style the story uses as it moves forward.  Ever present is Mark Korven’s musical score with those eerie out of tune riffs performed by various string instruments which, when combined with sharp and well timed editing, heighten the anxiety of the viewer and help create the tension necessary to build suspense.  This is seen during moments as simple as the family having supper and William declaring they will have a fasting day to atone for their sins, as well as the film’s more pivotal moments where its namesake begins to take control of the characters.  Eggers’ story is more about how easily a family unit can be ripped apart when faced with adversity.  Beginning with the moment in which Samuel mysteriously disappears, everyone begins turning on each other as accusations are made and decades old bonds are broken.

     The likely issue mainstream audiences will have with “The Witch” is the fact the film doesn’t exactly qualify as the horror film people are hoping to see.  From a horror trope standpoint, there isn’t a whole lot going on in the first two acts of the film and only those who appreciate the well thought out compositions of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and the performances of the cast will find the early scenes engaging enough.  Even the third act won’t satisfy those looking for the kind of visceral thrills associated with the genre, as the story plays more like a period version of “The Blair Witch Project” in that much of what goes on is psychological in nature and leaves most of what’s behind several horrific occurrences to the imagination.  For the characters, it’s those very imaginations which seem to lead to their demise.  GRADE: B-