Sean K. Cureton

Evangelical Paranoia in The Witch

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on March 5, 2016 at 12:39 pm
The Witch Review

A24

The Witch
Directed by Robert Eggers
3 out of 4 stars

Robert Eggers’ directorial debut premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, but it wasn’t until this year that A24 acquired the rights for distribution in the United States, though that hasn’t stopped the film from gaining momentum leading up to its theatrical release. The film centers on a New England family in 17th century America, whose staunchly held religious beliefs force them outside of their small colonial settlement into the wilds of uncivilized native lands that my be home to more than an enigmatically feral-seeming stray rabbit. The entire production is laced heavily with Puritanical Christian themes that more often than not revolve around the concept of sin and evil, all of which quickly devolves into an apparent spirit in the woods who begins devouring each of the seven family members’ sanity, one by one. Much of the film’s script is devoted the sense of alienation and dislocation that the various members of the nuclear unit feel upon their late separation from their English home of origin, which manifests itself in a physically manifested witch, whose object reality becomes a central question with which Eggers’ leaves his viewers’ by film’s end. It’s easy to conclude that the witch spirit, or spirits, that inhabit the film are a figment of insanity brought on by evangelical hysteria, and yet much of the film’s evocative imagery and coyly depicted dramatic events make for a supernatural horror thanks in no small part to said fervency of faith.

The actors chosen for their roles in Eggers’ film are spectacularly casted, as each member of the film’s modestly assembled theater troupe are so peculiar in manner and physiognomy that they feel intuitively right for the time and place in which the film is said to take place. Pulling from the roster of Game of Thrones medieval character actors, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie exude a certain archaic foreboding as the parental unit in their very essence, as both performers strike a fine balance between archaic dignity and primitive antagonism. Pulled into the fray are some of the best child actors to be seen on the big screen in quiet some time, all of whom are led by the spiritually corruptible Anya Taylor-Joy as the young Thomasin. It is in Taylor-Joy’s apparent willingness to indulge depravity and wickedness that proves to be her ultimate undoing or salvation, depending on how you read the film’s thrilling and surreal final sequence, and which makes Eggers’ film so sympathetically compelling. There is something undeniably at work upon the small family throughout the film’s unbelievable taut and claustrophobic 92 minute runtime, though from whence said tension arises is left to the power of its actors, who exude all of the horror for which the film falls into the realm of genre fiction.

Which brings the entire conversation back to the film’s apparent supernatural elements that threaten to override Eggers’ script’s obvious indebtedness to the more psychological and theological elements that make the entire production worthwhile. Like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist of 1973, The Witch examines the socio-cultural under-pinnings of contemporary belief through the history of religion, specifically the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, respectively. But where Friedkin is always aimed at finding the ways in which good will always triumph over evil, Eggers’ new film appears primed at examining the temporary desire for the pleasures of corruption, with the devil being a more alluring figure in his ephemeral appeal to the senses. The witch of the woods appears in the guise of whatever fantasy each of the members’ of the archetypically doomed household want the most dearly, and subsequently consumes them when they give into said carnal appetites. As Thomasin finally discovers at film’s end, sin is a far more attractive alternative to the dedication and hard work required of basic goodness, though the former indulgence will change you into a spectral shadow of one’s former self.

There’s plenty to continue to ponder after the credits finally role at the end of Eggers’ impeccably crafted first film, with the final sequence being one of the most obtuse and alienating experiences in recent memory. Eggers leaves his viewers with no easy answers or clear path out of the labyrinth of religious paranoia and colonial greed that he leads them into, and only continues to confuse the pertinent message underlying the visual tapestry of illusion, metaphor, and fantasy with the use of supernatural fiction. Which is all to say that the film works its way into unsettling the viewer in more ways than one, and provides a psychological horror story fit to bear the picture’s subtitle of being, “A New England Folktale.” Based in part on historical accounts and legends of the time passed down across generations and centuries, The Witch is half fable and half docudrama, though none of it ever purports itself to be literally or figuratively true. Which is all to say, again, why the film works so well, as all of the unreality of its visceral horror may finally be felt as psychological insight, however manically acquired said revelation is delivered.

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