Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Witch: Think On Thy Sins

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch.

I love a film that delivers exactly what it promises. Yes, there is a witch in this movie, and the question of her existence is not a protracted affair like it would be in so many other modern horror flicks (“Is she really a witch, or is she just crazy? Is there a supernatural evil at work, or is it paranoia?”). Less than five minutes into the movie it is made unutterably clear that you are dealing with a bona fide, hut-dwelling, baby-stealing WITCH, and to expect anything less is to be wholly unprepared for the unapologetic cinematic assault that The Witch will make on your sensibilities. There’s a text card that follows the end credits of the film proudly announcing that the antiquated 17th-century dialogue (with its “thou wilt”s and “come hither”s) is based on accurate historical research, and includes direct excerpts from New England journals and correspondences from that time. But this level of dedication to period authenticity is just icing on the cake – the film by itself (a shockingly adroit debut by writer-director Robert Eggers) is an exquisitely crafted exercise in sustained tension and disturbing imagery, that advertises a descent into Satanic madness and gives you exactly that. I’ve been missing some good old-fashioned devilry in my horror fare, and The Witch makes up for any number of half-assed Sinisters and Paranormal Activitys we’ve had to endure for the past decade. Come prepared to witness evil in its truest form – and the finely made film that acts as its earthly vessel.

The Witch dramatizes the first stirrings of Satanic hysteria in 1600s New England that would eventually evolve (or devolve, I guess) into the infamous Salem witch trials. It features a family of Puritans who are exiled from their plantation and strike out into the wilderness in search of a new (and ever more pious) life, only to be set upon by a force much greater and more capricious than the god to whom they direct their frequent prayer. Father William (Ralph Ineson), mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonah (Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson) find a clearing at the edge of a dense and foreboding wood, and in several months’ time they’ve constructed a small farm there and welcomed infant Samuel into their family. Samuel is with us for just a few scant scenes before – during a very ill-fated game of peek-a-boo – he is abducted by the titular hag, which devastates Katherine and is the first in a series of very strange occurrences that befall the family, not the least of which is the fascination the twins develop with one of the goats, which they call Black Phillip (who they claim whispers things to them). These visitations mark the start of a cycle of despair, paranoia, and mistrust which will ultimately consume the family.

It’s fascinating that in the wake of some great recent successes in the indie horror genre like It Follows and The Babadook, there are still those who profess to know exactly what constitutes a horror film and what does not, and that those people have taken it upon themselves to shoulder the burden of letting the rest of us know that, sorry, but despite all its good press and critical acclaim, The Witch doesn’t count . (Thanks to our own Phil Dyess-Nugent for sharing this link, which he found after seeing – and apparently enjoying – The Witch as well.) As both a so-called “cinephile” and a genuine fan of genre film I find this assertion offensive, especially because The Witch is practically a masterclass on how typical genre elements can be handled with expertise, can be made to shine in a quote-unquote “serious” cinematic setting, and can be used to explore interesting thematic material. To wit: the religious devotion of our Puritan family is shown to be as much a source of paranoia as a source of comfort, even when nothing is going terribly wrong (yet). The stirrings of sexual awakening, mostly experienced by Caleb, are suppressed by these beliefs and practices, and so revealed as a weakness to be exploited. William’s insistence that they turn their thoughts away from their misery and towards Christ are less an indication of his piety and more a suggestion of his own cowardice. The theft of a precious silver cup, taken in a moment of need and used to buy much-needed supplies, drives a wedge between husband and wife, especially when the blame is passed around like a plague. What Eggers does with The Witch on a textual level is bring these character elements together in such a way that it seems the family’s dissolution was always an inevitability, and that the out-and-out horrifying Satan stuff is simply a thematic reflection of their fracturing unit. Except that it’s also very, very real.

Eggers demonstrates an extremely careful hand behind the camera, too, keeping the story structure simple and the tension ever-present. The soundtrack helps greatly in this – composer Mark Korven leans heavily on atonal strings and choral voices to create a soundscape that would make Gyorgy Ligeti jealous – but it’s Eggers’ confident, measured style that really keeps your muscles knotted. Besides obvious thematic inspirations like The Omen, he reveals other muses too: he frames his shots like a devoted student of Kubrick, keeping the camera planted, the cuts infrequent, and often showing us wide, uninterrupted views of something we don’t want to see, zooming in or out with the same inexorable slowness of The Shining. (And, like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, the film was shot entirely in natural lighting, which further enhances the visual similarity.) Eggers is a director who clearly emphasizes control over what his audience sees and exactly how much visual information you are given at any particular time, often letting your imagination work itself into a lather while he lingers on agonizingly unbroken reaction shots. He turns the innocuous into the sinister: the family cart riding away from camera towards the treeline feels like the forest is drawing them into an inescapable maw, and the rabbit that William and Caleb are hunting just stares, unmoving, in the face of their rifle – which backfires when they attempt to shoot it.

And that goat. That fucking goat, man.

Eggers makes a fearsome debut, but particular kudos are due to the cast, who are fiercely dedicated to both the antediluvian dialogue and to their tight-knit group of characters. They make the family feel lived-in – these are people who spend every waking hour bunched up together with nobody else for company, after all – and when the supernatural shit begins to hit the fan, they display great skill at being terrified and terrifying in equal measure. Anya Taylor-Joy as eldest daughter Thomasin puts in a remarkable, star-making performance that revolves around her burgeoning beauty and her agency as a growing woman (the specific details of which would tread deep into the spoiler zone), which makes her the film’s most captivating figure – other than Black Phillip, of course.

The Witch is a terrifyingly effective example of genre film being tuned to its fullest potential, delivering on the dual promise of Satanic horror and expert-level filmmaking (which only idiots would still decry as mutually exclusive). It’s fanatically dedicated to the tactile truths of its 17th-century setting – prohibitively so in some cases, considering the dimwitted couple behind me at my screening who talked through most of the challenging dialogue and proclaimed it was “a waste of money” when the credits rolled – and it doesn’t pull a single punch in its attempt to unnerve, unsettle, and upset you right from the opening frames. I truly sympathize with the filmgoer who doesn’t trust trailers and buys a ticket for The Witch thinking that, like most recent horror films, it’s going to tread carefully around their tender sensibilities, but for the love of God, take this film’s marketing at its word. It had a witch. It was about the actual, yes-it’s-really-him Lucifer. And, most crucially, it scared the ever-loving bejeezus out of me.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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