**** (out of 5)
February 19, 2016
Anya Taylor-Joy as THOMASIN
Ralph Ineson as WILLIAM
Kate Dickie as KATHERINE
Harvey Scrimshaw as CALEB
Ellie Grainger as MERCY
Lucas Dawson as JONAS
Bathsheba Garnett as THE WITCH
Directed by: Robert Eggers
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
One of my favorite things about being a film critic is that I have an obligation to see as many of the wide releases that hit theaters every week. While this can be a bit of a chore sometimes – to see some real stinkers, from mass-market tripe like the “Twilight” series to overblown award film fodder like Angelina Jolie’s “By the Sea” – this gives me the advantage of seeing a whole range of offerings.
While I’m a fan of the horror genre, if I were to limit my viewing to only the biggest name horror films, I’d be missing out. I’d also be seeing a lot of the same type of material, and not just in the found footage category. However, by seeing a wide range of films, including features in limited release and On Demand, I get to see some very different movies.
I’m not going to declare that something is great simply for being different. However, if you give yourself a chance to watch things that are different, you won’t have an immediate knee-jerk negative reaction to something that is not the same as everything else.
I fear that this is where “The Witch” is going to face its biggest challenges. But even though it’s a challenging film that can polarize audiences, it can still be a fascinating experience.
“The Witch” is billed as a New England folk tale, chronicling the struggles of a family in the 1630s who moves away from the safety of the fort to farm the land on their own. As soon as they move and settle in their exposed farm, they start facing some potential dangers. While the teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching her baby brother, he disappears. The family fears it is wolves that snatched him, but after seeing the siblings appear bewitched by a creepy farm animal known as Black Phillip, they begin to wonder if a witch in the woods has targeted them.
The family soon spirals out of control, falling into a world of paranoia and the fear of the unknown. Each family member suspects the other of collusion with the Devil, and buried secrets of past behavior soon become uncovered, furthering the paranoia.
While it deals with some pretty standard elements, “The Witch” is not your typical horror movie. It finds its essence in suspense and a slow build. There’s an eerie nature to the film’s delivery, mostly achieved with brilliantly subdued cinematography and intensely creepy locations. It also manages to throw in the emotional struggles of adolescence into the film (with both Thomasin and her brother Caleb, both of whom are experiencing doubt and fear in both natural and unnatural situations) without falling into the traps of modern teen angst.
Still, it’s a challenging film to connect to audiences, particularly because it uses the archaic language from the 1600s – taken from primary sources like journals and official documents – to keep the film as authentic as possible. This will turn off some viewers, but as it is with Shakespeare, the uncommon language is part of the poetry of the story, and the film would be far different (and less atmospheric and visceral as a result) without it.
I would not characterize “The Witch” as overtly scary but rather unnerving. It puts the viewer in the shoes of the ignorant and scared who try to make sense out of the world, and those that might be paranoid for a very good reason.