Saturday, April 4, 2020

THE WITCH (2015) Blu-ray Review

The Witch (2015) d. Robert Eggers (USA) (92 min)

In 1630s New England, the pious William (Ralph Ineson) is banished from the Puritan homestead, along with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children, for speaking against the church elders for their fixation on wealth and status. He scorns their golden candlesticks and religious trappings, preferring to make his way in the wilderness alone with his family, closer to the land, closer to God. But when their infant child Samuel is spirited away into the woods whilst under the care of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), it sets in motion a crumbling of the familial unit, a dissolution spurred by suspicion, hunger, lust, jealousy… and perhaps a little help from beyond the veil.

It’s hard to believe that such a confident and skilled assemblage of sound, image, music, and performance could be the work of a filmmaker of so few years, but it’s equally hard to imagine The Witch – or The VVitch: A New-England Folketale as it’s spelled out in the opening titles, instantly setting its tone of long away/far away (but not so long ago or far away as you might think) – emerging from the mind of a veteran craftsman. There is a daring, youthful quality of you-are-there authenticity and immediacy, but not one generated by the clunky first-person camerawork that has permeated YouTube-era cinema and television over the last decade.

Instead, the cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is stately and elegant, a perfect blend of light and shadow, softness and sharpness. Adam Stein’s sound design dances seamlessly with composer Mark Korven’s choral-tinged melodies, creating a haunting, otherwordly atmosphere that at once soothes and unnerves. The production design by Craig Lathrop, and his able team of Andrea Kristof (art direction) and Linda Muir (costume design) is dazzling in its meticulous attention to detail; every piece feels so right, so genuine, from the angle of the axe blade with which William doggedly splits firewood to the barn that houses Black Phillip (the family goat who might be more than he appears).

Ineson, with his rumbling baritone voice and gaunt visage, is electrifying as the beleaguered patriarch, deeply sympathetic in his struggles to do what he feels is right, even as we condemn his untruths and hypocrisy both spoken and unspoken. I immediately wondered, “Where did they find this guy?” but it turns out Ineson has been hiding in plain sight for years, with over 100 film and television credits to his name, dating back to the early 1990s. How you keep such a talent as this secret is a mystery indeed, but it’s satisfying to see him starting to enjoy a higher profile as a result of his work here. (Fans of the Harry Potter films were presumably ahead of the curve, where he turned up as a character called “Amycus Carrow,” but I have no idea who that is.)

Taylor-Joy, with her huge soulful eyes and expressive face, is the heart of the film and the young actress carries her first leading role with confidence and grace. We instantly connect with Thomasin, knowing her to be guiltless in Samuel’s disappearance because we were there with her during the game of peek-a-boo and we saw that brief, nearly imperceptible rustle at the edge of the woods before all was still again. We see the love for her family, even as they grow to distrust her, but more importantly we note her attempts to be a “good Christian.” Praying earnestly to be forgiven for impure thoughts, we realize that this is a young woman who rejects the darkness and temptations until the darkness is all that remains and no one else will have her. The final glimpse of her face by firelight, a mixture of horror and joy as she realizes her ultimate fate, is haunting, euphoric, and devastating.

Equally deserving of praise are Dickie as the increasingly shattered matriarch and young Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, the eldest son. Dickie anchors the proceedings as a woman who does not share her husband’s fanatical devotions, but is devoted to him and follows him into the unsettled countryside despite her deep desires for community and a society of equals. She is quick to judge and quick to condemn, her pain and loss carving her away from the inside. It is Katherine’s eventual tumble into madness that delivers the most shocking visual horrors, and while she is the most antagonistic toward our heroine Thomasin, casting her as villain by default, we never fail to identify with her emotionally.

Scrimshaw bears the difficult task of projecting a sense of innocence while also wrestling with Caleb’s unbidden sexual urges toward his elder sister. Caleb also disappears into the woods for a time, but unlike Samuel he returns, albeit forever changed and a stranger to his loved ones. His scenes of hysteria and adulation are deeply unsettling and surprisingly nuanced for such a young performer; their conclusion marks the turning point from which his onscreen family will never recover.

As “The Twins” Mercy and Jonas, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are supremely appealing and annoying, endlessly singing songs of Black Phillip and creating a nuisance for Thomasin, but they too will ultimately be used as weapons against their own flesh and blood by the powers of darkness.

I first saw The Witch during its theatrical release in early 2016 and instantly fell under its spell, if you’ll pardon the unfortunate pun. The feature debut of writer/director Eggers had already created quite a stir at Sundance when it debuted a year earlier (winning its creator the Best Director award in the process), but there is hype and there is firsthand experience and I was completely unprepared for this fearless and assured blending of authentic period detail, brilliant acting, and sphincter-clenching dread and terror.

Told with a vicious simplicity (the plot itself is remarkably unfussy and straightforward) yet tackling complex and chewy subtext such as patriarchy, incest, isolation, puritanism, misogyny, and the “othering” of women and non-Christian belief systems, this is that special kind of horror film, like Night of the Living Dead, where the monsters are both without and within. As I commented to a friend shortly afterwards, “It’s like watching Arthur Miller’s The Crucible… if there were also real witches waiting just offstage.”


Audio Commentary by writer/director Robert Eggers

"The VVitch: A Primal Folktale" featurette (8 min)

Salem Panel Q&A: Post-screening panel where Eggers and Anya Taylor-Joy are joined by leading Salem witch-hunt historian Richard Trask and author Brunonia Barry to discuss the film, the infamous Salem witch trials, and their impact on American history (28 min)

Design Gallery

The Witch is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate and can be ordered via any number of online platforms.


No comments:

Post a Comment