Silver Screen: The Witch ****1/2
The first great movie of 2016 is here.
Okay, technically The Witch is a 2015 release that only recently crept into theaters nationwide. That won’t be a concern when you’re sitting, stunned, through slow-burning tension that erupts in an audacious climax— without breaking the foreboding, hushed tone established during the opening frames.
First-time writer/director Robert Eggers asserts tremendous confidence with an abrupt prologue that spares the exposition but tells you all you need to know. In early seventeenth century New England, puritanical settler William (Ralph Ineson) stands unrepentant before a jury of his peers and the watchful eyes of his frightened family. He refuses to make an apology and agrees to banishment from the plantation. His presumed crime: Being somehow too pious for his exasperated, stone-faced Christian brethren, who appear relieved to be rid of him.
The family’s banishment to a solitary existence in the untamed American woods works as both microcosm and hyperbole. Their little sect is a representation in miniature of the pilgrims who set out across the sea for a risky, uncertain life, yet it’s also an extreme iteration of the journey— at least the folks back at the plantation have somebody to help them survive.
Eggers’s sparsely scored, long, mostly static shots establish an atmosphere of ominous isolation. He eschews jump scares in favor of a slow, deliberate knotting of your gut as the family’s fortunes tumble.
The most striking example is the rendering of the first calamity that befalls them. Budding young adult daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the closest thing to the movie’s protagonist, plays peekaboo with her infant brother. The baby’s glittering eyes and adorable smile every time he’s startled by his sister’s “Boo!” plays like a gentle commentary on the audience’s love of being scared. Then, with nary a sound, it turns frightening. Thomasin opens her eyes and the baby is gone.
The disappearance of its youngest member is the first step toward the family’s ruin. Mother Katherine (Kate Dickie, Game of Thrones’ loony helicopter mom in the high castle) is despondent. Eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) struggles to reconcile his father’s intense feelings of religious guilt with the presumption that the baby was taken because the family sinned.
Another suggestion dangles like rotted fruit: Perhaps the family is cursed by a witch who stole the baby.
Then there’s the matter of Black Phillip, a rowdy, pitch-colored horned goat who looks every bit the hooved emissary of Satan. The family’s wicked little toddler twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) insist he speaks to them and urges them to do evil.
Ultimately the question of The Witch is the same one that bedevils the tortured William and his spiritually confused children: Does evil come from within or without?
Eggers is tantalizingly vague in his answers, teasing the rational brain with suggestions of mental illness while eschewing metaphor altogether in straightforward scenes of horror. The Witch seems at first like a horror film whose scares all come in the form of shadow and suggestion, but the director breaks this spell early with a terrifying, very literal vision of a twisted, wraithlike woman committing unspeakable atrocities in a wooded encampment. Removed from context, the images are intense and disturbing, but in the prim, painfully sober milieu Eggers first establishes, they land like a sucker punch.
As their lives crumble, the family members cling to the notion that their salvation lies in knowing how the seed of evil was planted. Was it the talking goat, William’s pride, or the nascent threat of Thomasin’s sexuality that invited devilry? We’re also invited to consider what none of the characters ever do, which is that William’s all-consuming obsession with sin and ruination becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that infects every member of his family.
Mass hysteria, supernatural encroachment, or good old-fashioned madness— Eggers explores all possibilities with equal credulity. The movie’s divisive ending only further presses the questions: What did you see, or what did you think you saw, and what does that say about you?
The Witch is a bona fide cult classic in the making. The early modern English dialogue, the handsomely simple aesthetic, the patient direction, and the restrained performances coalesce to create a plausible, immersive period setting that Eggers slyly barbs with contemporary ideas. He might be stingy with the explicit scenes of horror, but that handful of images invokes intense dread, as if Goya could have produced Baroque renderings of Lovecraft stories. They linger like a curse.
Eggers instantly establishes himself with this distinctive debut, which is absolutely compelling if not always especially fun to watch. It’s not exactly a damned good time, but it’s damnation done damn well.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.