Monday, February 22, 2016

THE WITCH, A New England Folktale

The Witch, a film that earned a great deal of publicity and kudos during its opening weekend, is supposed to mark the return of the serious horror movie, the type of feature that is both artful and traumatic, the sort that is so well-made and stylish that it can’t be dismissed as a cheapie, and disturbing enough to send first-time moviegoers home in a daze. Critics have gone gaga over it, comparing it to everything from the paintings of Goya and Wyeth, to the films of Roeg and Malick. Director/writer Robert Eggers must be pleased with the film’s reception, but despite a few chilling moments and a game cast, I’m not sure The Witch is 100-percent successful. It wants so badly to be thought of as a “smart” movie, when it might’ve been better served if it dropped a few IQ points.

The story concerns a family of early American settlers who’ve been exiled from their village. The father’s relentless Jesus talk, you see, has made the puritans uncomfortable. The banished clan sets up a little home on the edge of a dark and forbidding forest, an area sinister enough to remind one of Grimm's fairy tales, and by that I mean the original ones where bad children had their thumbs bitten off.  Tragedy comes when the baby of the family is stolen by a strange woman who lives in the woods. Later, in the darkness of her cabin, we see her knobby old hand holding a knife to the infant’s belly, and then we’re shown some peculiar, blurry activity, all to suggest the crone is washing herself in baby’s blood. 

The father maintains a stoical, God-fearing attitude, but he’s not much of a farmer, and is even worse at hunting for food. The disappearance of the baby is just one more strike against him. He’s a dud at this whole “head of the family” deal, so he spends a lot of nights aimlessly chopping wood, muttering to himself about Jesus. Thomasin, the oldest daughter who was supposed to be watching the baby when it was taken, is complex. She’s like many older sisters, nurturing and caring, obediently combing out her father’s woolens, but she also teases her younger siblings that she’s in league with the devil and plans to eat them someday. Then there’s Caleb, the oldest son, who feels guilty about the impure thoughts he has about Thomasin.  It’s hard to blame Caleb for eyeballing his sister while living in such isolation. It’s either her, or his mother, and the mother (well played by Kate Dickie)  is a coiled ball of grief over the missing child.

There are animals, too, including a large hare that seems impervious to gunfire (and cameramen), and Black Phillip, a menacing goat who, with nothing but his massive horns and his almond shaped eyes, can dominate any scene. The problem with the animals is that Eggers relies too heavily on them to create an atmosphere of dread. By the third time the rabbit stares into the camera twitching his nose, you've had enough.

In short, Eggers seems so pleased with subtleties, like an imp playing tricks, that the film never quite rears back and attacks us. Though Eggers went through great pains to recreate 1600s New England,  especially the old English style of speaking (“Hold thy tongue, daughter mine!”), there’s little done to show what such isolation would do to a person’s mind, or how the idea of witchcraft might actually appeal to people down to their last ear of corn. 

Eggers is saved, more or less, by a brilliant group of actors. As the father, Ralph Ineson is excellent, all scornful glances and bible talk to mask the frustration of watching his family come apart. Meanwhile, Anya Taylor-Joy is very fine as Thomasin, walking the thin line walked by all adolescent girls, in that she’s loyal to the family but angry at the restrictions placed upon her, and  dismayed at how no one appears to trust her. Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are exceptional as the youngest members of the family, bobbling about like little trolls, while Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb might be the best of the bunch. Caleb's fever dream while under a spell is almost worth the price of admission.

It’s difficult to comment on Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, for his task was to recreate the bleak New England winter. The effect he achieves is probably accurate, with grey skies and ominous trees, but it quickly becomes dreary and monotonous. Did the sun never come out in the 1600s? Or was the sky still grey from the volcanic ash that supposedly killed the dinosaurs? What we get in several scenes is a movie so dimly lit that we can barely see what’s going on, while actors speak a language we can barely understand. It’s like sitting through Shakespeare, sort of grasping it, but hoping no one asks you to explain anything. To make things worse, there’s really nothing here that will raise half a goose bump. Eggers is content to creep us out a little, so we get a lot of “What just happened?” moments, such as a sudden scene of a raven pecking at a woman’s bleeding tit.

The images, though dreamily shot, don’t amount to much. I can’t imagine anyone, save those with a fear of goats, being frightened by anything in The Witch. In fact, for anyone who has watched a lot of horror movies, or read some scary literature, or better yet, had a nightmare that made your heart race, the movie will probably be a big snore.

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