February 22, 2016

Movie Review: The Witch (2016)

In this young year, The Witch was one of my most anticipated films. I had friends who had seen it on the festival circuit and were raving about it. On top of that, the trailer looked utterly fascinating. So, as soon as the movie opened, I was there, sitting front and center, looking forward to what I was hoping would be greatness. Yes, there is always a gnawing feeling at the back of my mind that I am going to be let down, it has happened before and I am sure it is going to happen again. Fortunately, now is not that time. I found The Witch to be utterly engrossing, unnerving, and fascinating. I also recognized it as a movie that is sure to have as much hate tossed at it as love.

As soon as I left the theater and was chatting about it with some friends, I commented that it was going to be this year’s It Follows or The Babadook. If you haven’t seen them, I think you should. I cannot guarantee you will like them, but I loved them and they stand apart from studio backed horror. Also, they were the targets of pure love and extreme hate. I sort of feel that if you make a movie that can elicit that sort of widespread reaction, you’ve done something right. Frankly, I think I am beyond truly caring if you love them or hate them, just that you had a reaction to them and you understand your reaction beyond “I liked it” or “I hated it.”

The Witch is the feature film debut for writer/director Robert Eggers. The movie has the subtitle of “A New England Folktale” and that seems perfectly appropriate for describing the film. It is based on, and inspired by, and even draws dialogue from written accounts of accused witchcraft in Puritanical New England. It is set 60-some years before the Salem Witch Trials. It has a look and feel of authenticity, to the point that I am looking forward to watching it at home with the subtitles turned on, as some of the accents were a little thick, paired with the Olde English speech).

As the story begins, we meet William (Ralph Ineson), the patriarch of a family who also happens to be in front of the town elders. He has been accused of being too literal and strict with his interpretations and preaching of the Bible, at the cost of following the rules of the town. Rather than submit to them, he sticks by his closely held beliefs, packs up his wife and children and leave. They set up a small farm on the edge of a dark, foreboding forest, and it is here that strange things begin to happen.

Being that I am still processing what I saw, I will not go into that great of detail. Let us say that things begin to happen to the family and their land that challenge their beliefs and invite paranoia, fear, and anger into their lives. The core of their faith is shaken, and it stands to reason that some may have been questioning their beliefs already. It is fascinating to watch as the strange events begin to take their toll and see the family members shaken to the point of turning on each other.

The Witch is a beautifully shot exercise in the slow burn tradition. This movie is not about the gore (although it does have some blood) and violence, it is not about the jump scare or the creepy faced killer, it is about the people and their lives and the ways in which they are tested. While I am not nearly as well read as I should be, the movie has the feel of a literary ancestral tree more than a cinematic one. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is utterly gorgeous, but the way it moves, the way the characters are written and react, feels more like a book come to life than anything else. I am not quote sure that makes sense, but I think you understand what I am saying.

Yes, it is a slow burn, yes, it feels like not a lot happens for a good part of its running time, but it eventually gets to a point where the foreshadowing and the weird happenings reach their breaking point and it gets a little nuts. It is a conclusion that feels right, it may seem initially sudden, but it also feels like the finish it was building to the entire time. The main character has an interesting relationship with pretty much everyone around her, somewhat questioning the authority, but never being forward or strong enough to truly confront it. She is more going through the motions through fear or conditioning, so when the end does arrive, it feels appropriate and right, if not the typical “happy” ending you may be trying to get from it.

The Witch is destined to be a divisive film. For me, I loved it. It drew me in and held my attention, it made me interested in what was coming, in trying to figure out what was going on. As it ended, I was left drifting, a state of trying to process what I had seen. Many friends did not know if they liked it or not when they left their screening, I was sort of the same way. I knew I loved it, but I was not sure why. I may still not know, not exactly. The Witch will sit with you, it will worm itself through your mind and reveal itself to you. As it does so, you will learn where it fits in with your tastes and experience. You just have to see it first.

Highly Recommended.

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