Friday, February 19, 2016

In Theaters: THE WITCH (2016)

(US/Brazil/UK/Canada - 2016)

Written and directed by Robert Eggers. Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings. (R, 92 mins)

The slowest of slow burners, THE WITCH immediately establishes debuting writer/director Robert Eggers as an extraordinarily promising new voice in cinema. A painstakingly executed 17th century period piece in which Eggers based part of his script on actual diaries and testimonies from the era, THE WITCH is the best horror film to come down the pike since THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS, with Eggers masterfully cranking the dread-soaked tension until your stomach is in knots. Almost immediately after the the fade-in, the feeling of doom and despair quickly goes from palpable to overwhelming. Banished from their village for reasons the script never specifies--the film, subtitled "A New England Folktale," is a case study in presenting literal horrors surrounded by a much larger sense of ambiguity--a devoutly religious Puritan family is forced to make it on their own as they travel a distance to settle on the edge of a dark, vast woods. Patriarch William (busy British TV actor Ralph Ineson, best known to American audiences as David Brent's obnoxious pal Finchy on the original UK version of THE OFFICE and as Dagmer Cleftjaw on GAME OF THRONES) and wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, GAME OF THRONES' insane Lysa Arryn) have five children: eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is on the verge of womanhood; eldest son Caleb (the awesomely-named Harvey Scrimshaw) is just entering puberty and can't stop stealing curious glances at Thomasin's blossoming cleavage; younger twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) sing, play, and engage in mischief, spending a lot of time talking to Black Philip, the family goat; and infant Samuel. Not long after establishing their new home, Samuel seemingly vanishes into thin air as Thomasin covers her face playing peek-a-boo with him. Then the crops start dying. Then Katherine's cherished silver cup belonging to her late father goes missing and she blames Thomasin. There's a logical explanation for the cup's disappearance--William sold it for food and goods that they desperately needed--but the tensions start flaring and paranoia sets in, and the response to everything is to pray harder.

Thomasin cruelly jokes about being a witch to the twins, who believe her when Caleb returns naked and exhausted from a trip to the woods, possibly possessed by a malevolent force after he encounters a seductive, shape-shifting witch (Sarah Stephens), who may be the old crone (Bathsheba Garnett) we see absconding with baby Samuel and bathing in his blood after sacrificing him. Katherine is quick to blame everything on Thomasin (why?) and going back to their village is impossible (why?). The situation grows more dire with each passing minute, with William's intense faith and dutiful sense of innate guilt unable to keep evil from wreaking havoc on their lives. THE WITCH is set a few decades prior to the Salem Witch Trials, but Eggers toys with the idea that the finger-pointing hysteria was justified. The events in THE WITCH are not some kind of group psychosis borne of religious fanaticism and it's not just voices in their heads--it's real and it manifests itself in ways that make escape impossible. Even once they try to leave, it won't let them. Never mind the real witch casting a spell on Caleb or making itself known to the twins through a vessel like Black Philip. The horror in THE WITCH is not of the in-your-face, jump-scare variety that's the de rigeur norm for fright flicks today. No, THE WITCH takes the approach favored by ROSEMARY'S BABY and the first hour of THE EXORCIST: by the time the shit hits the fan, you're feeling so suffocated that you're practically gasping for air.

Eggers' stylistic choices are extremely effective as well. There's a definite Stanley Kubrick inspiration in the shot compositions, in the almost exclusive use of natural lighting in Jarin Blaschke's cinematography (think BARRY LYNDON), in Caleb's encounter with the witch, which is an obvious affectionate nod to Room 237 in THE SHINING, and in the chilling score, with its mix of strings and shrieking, cacophonous voices recalling unforgettable moments of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Eggers' almost obsessive pursuit of the harsh realism of the time brings to mind both the perfectionism of Kubrick and the rigorously-achieved detail of something like Bela Tarr's THE TURIN HORSE or Kelly Reichardt's MEEK'S CUTOFF, and the entire aura of THE WITCH is reminiscent of both THE CRUCIBLE reinterpreted as an exercise in Satanic horror and of Avery Crounse's 1983 film EYES OF FIRE, a low-budget, rustic-looking 18th century colonial period piece that has a small but very devoted following today (it's surprising that no one's resurrected it on Blu-ray by now). Other than Ineson and Dickie, who aren't exactly household names in the US, and a brief early appearance by Canadian cult actor Julian Richings (CUBE) as the village elder who orders the family exiled, the cast is populated by unknowns, which only makes their performances that much more gritty and utterly believable. Ineson and Dickie are superb, and Scrimshaw has one haunting moment that he plays to absolute perfection, but this should be a starmaker of a performance by Taylor-Joy, who's dragged through the ringer and required to run the gamut of emotions throughout.

A big hit at Sundance a year ago and arriving in theaters now with the seal of approval from none other than the Satanic Temple, THE WITCH was acquired by A24, who opted to roll it out nationwide. An arthouse film like this is a tough sell to a mainstream audience, and if the grumbling at the end of the matinee I saw on opening day is any indication, this isn't going to find an appreciative audience expecting cheap jolts to distract them from their phones. Eggers' devotion to period detail is as unrelentingly fanatical as the religious zealotry of his characters. It's such that the dialogue is often difficult to decipher--the accents are thick and there's a lot of "thee," "thou," and "wouldst" rolling off the actors' tongues (it's a pretty safe bet that this will be the only film of 2016 to have an actor shouting "Didst thou make an unholy pact with that goat?"). It's also very much a film in tune with the politics and culture of today, with its allegorical approach to the tunnelvision of fundamentalism and inherent distrust of anything outside of religion, while at the same time doing so without mocking them and providing no easy answers since, at least in the context of this film and its depiction of the early-to-mid 17th century, those so-called zealots have valid reasons to be very afraid. THE WITCH is a boldly original and uncompromising film that's insidious in the way it digs its hooks into you and doesn't let go. It's an exercise in vivid, complex world-building that takes its time drawing you into its orbit, and if given a chance, it's the kind of work whose chilling, disturbing effectiveness stays with you long after the movie ends. This is the first great film of 2016.

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