THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
A title card at the end of The Witch informs us that it is based on actual witchcraft lore, and much of the dialogue comes verbatim from accounts of it. Even without that information, you could reasonably guess that writer/director Robert Eggers did his homework. Lots of movies deal with evil, the devil, and/or witches, but few have the deeply unnerving vibe that this one does. It fundamentally feels authentic. That marks it as one of the more notable horror films of the last few years.
The story takes place in the 1630s. A Puritan family, headed by William (Ralph Ineson), leaves the safety of a New England plantation after their beliefs clash with those of the others. They find a piece of land and set up a new home. Then tragedy strikes. Teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing a game of peek-a-boo with her infant sibling when the baby is snatched by a witch who lives in the woods. Mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) blames her for this, especially after Thomasin jokes to her three other siblings that she herself is a witch. William believes increased prayer will stop a run of misfortune that follows the abduction. He is wrong. The question then becomes whether Thomasin is, in fact, responsible for what's happening, or whether something else is occurring. One of the family's goats, named Black Phillip, may hold the answers.
The Witch is not a jump-out-of-your-seat horror movie like The Conjuring. There are no shock scares or moments designed to make you scream. Instead, it is a shining example of the power of tone. Eggers, who won the Best Director award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival for his work here, creates an immediate sense of dread which increases steadily over the course of ninety-three tense minutes. The sets and locations never once feel recreated. The performances are as subtle as they are spot-on. Eerie cinematography from Jarin Blaschke provides a dark, ominous look that makes it seem as though something evil is perpetually lurking just out of frame, while Mark Korven's non-traditional musical score subliminally reinforces that notion. Eggers also films in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio that is slightly narrower than the 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 ratios of most movies. This ensures The Witch feels claustrophobic. All of these elements add together to create an experience in which you are never allowed to relax. You are kept on edge from start to finish by the numerous ways the film burrows under your skin.
Aside from the visceral impact, there's a deeply disturbing theme embedded in the story. William and his family are devout Christians. They believe, they pray, they worship. Something evil gets to them anyway. The movie's message is not that religious faith fails to protect people, though. Far from it. Instead, The Witch is about the sheer insidiousness of evil. One of the basic tenets of Christianity is that the devil (literal or figurative) lulls you in. He presents himself in a way that is enticing, only sinking in his hooks when his victims have walked far enough down the path on their own. A scene involving Thomasin's pubescent brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) encountering the witch best exemplifies this. At its deepest level, The Witch is about evil coming for people who are, to use a metaphor, so convinced the front door is secure that they forget the back door is unlocked.
The most horrific moments in the movie -- a hallucination shattered, a shadow, a closeup of a goat -- are presented with chilling matter-of-factness. They're impactful not because they're designed to jolt you, but because they come wrapped in a larger context. Once upon a time, people commonly believed that forces of evil could physically manifest themselves. Today, we recognize that evil comes in different forms, such as bigotry, mass shootings, and terrorism. It still creeps up when we least expect it to. The Witch is a look back at a period where life was “simpler,” and people were therefore afraid of a literal demon. Watching it, we can see how much has changed in some respects, yet not at all in others.
Characters in The Witch speak in Ye Olde English, which is occasionally a slight bit difficult to decipher and may prove frustrating for some viewers. Then again, that's just one more thing that adds to the feel. This is a movie that envelops you in its foreboding atmosphere. From the moment the studio logo appears until the final cut to black, The Witch holds you in its grasp with a chilling exploration of how evil chooses some people to be its victims and others to do its bidding.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Witch is rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.
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