film horror

THE WITCH Review: Religion and Family (and Goats) Will Getcha

Monday, February 22, 2016 Rob Samuelson

The Witch

Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett
Rating: Four and a half stars out of five
Available in theaters now

The Witch gets it. It lives and breathes the best practices of visual filmmaking and puts them into motion with purpose, feeling, and multilayered meaning as it explores the breakdown of a family wracked with dysfunction. Each character is served with complete, affecting arcs that capture in excruciating detail the feeling of their respective places in a cruel world.

This “New England folk tale” is exquisite in the way it synthesizes the superstitions, hangups, and anxieties of the colonial settlers in the 1600s. It often uses their own written words to inform the dialogue and situations presented within the story of a family driven from their religious settlement in the new world for ever-expanding and sanctimonious litmus tests of devoutness. The family patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), is a mess of a human being, the type of man who compounds his troubles by doubling down on mistake after mistake until he achieves total ruin. His family did little or nothing to deserve being dismissed from their community. It is purely his fault, for he can't help but see slights and transgressions from the cause of God in everything he encounters. To him, salvation is perennially around the corner, despite every piece of evidence to the contrary.

Writer-director Robert Eggers, making his feature debut, uses William's arc to give the lie to the American myth of the completely self-sufficient man. William is a person of few gifts and he deludes himself into a belief he can and will handle every problem that comes his way. But the family's new house in the middle of nowhere would best be described as a rickety shambles, with a half-finished addition and an animal pen that looks like it was designed and built by an absentminded child. Their corn crop is failing. He has no aptitude for hunting. But he sure can chop wood for fires, so he spends too much time doing that to make himself feel important. Those piles of cut logs do nothing to change the fact that winter is on its way and he has no plan to feed his family.

Luckily for William's incompetent self, that family begins to dwindle. Eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, asserting herself as a performer of great depth) is charged with caring for her infant brother in the cornfield one afternoon. She plays a game of peekaboo with the baby, only to discover after covering her eyes one time too many that the baby has disappeared. The rhythms Eggers and editor Louise Ford build in this sequence cue the viewers' hearts to speed up as Taylor-Joy's eyes, in a tight close-up, flicker in recognition that something terrible has happened. The dawning realization that she is vulnerable, alone against a threat neither she nor the audience can see is thrilling and unnerving.

The abduction of her baby brother places Thomasin firmly in the film's moral center. Her mother, played by Game of Thrones' Kate Dickie, already a broken women from her husband's never-ending pursuit of religious purity, hollows out completely at the loss of her youngest child. Thomasin is a sensible young woman, able to keep her wits about her even as the world around her burns. The responsibility she feels for her siblings is doubly remarkable given the hormonal shift her body is taking as she begins puberty, a seismic event within herself that the film masterfully manifests in physical form time and again thanks to the supernatural threats posed by their new environment. Blood follows her wherever she goes – her cow milking chore turns into demonic bout of possession as the udder shoots red liquid – as a specter of her changing body and her newfound position as a possible money-making object for her father, who sees her as ripe for selling off into a marriage at the earliest opportunity.

Thomasin's brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), has his own puberty to contend with, but his is a more troubling sort. Segregated from any possibility of a healthy connection with humanity, Caleb is the ironic counterpoint to William's – and, by extension, fundamentalist religion's – quest for perfection in mind and deed. There is goodness within him, like his desire to fudge the truth for his mother's peace of mind, but his urges for and stolen glances at his older sister have the makings of something tragic.

As he does with every character, Eggers brilliantly marries theme, plot, and character to capture Caleb's interior and exterior journeys with metaphorical cinematic language. Caleb's encounter with the witch of the film's title is everything one expects a heterosexual pubescent boy to fantasize about. She is alluring, scantily clad, a curvy beauty who offers him the attention he craves. Of course it's a cruel ruse played on a boy by a world that never fails to punish its inhabitants for their desires.

Some people are able to bend to that world, and Thomasin is one of them. Her realistic pragmatism puts her on a frightening journey. It is a long, painful break from the only family she has ever known, into a place where she may have a say in how she lives her life. By doing this, The Witch rejects rigidity of mind and especially the forceful imposition of that rigidity, completing an arc toward rebellion and choice, even if those things can also lead to dangerous places. With immaculate execution of that theme by its director, crew, and cast, it becomes great.

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