By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Sundance Review: The Witch

There is a scene in The Witch so terrifyingly twisted that when it was over, I realized my mouth had been frozen agape for a solid three minutes or so. A film that is the feature writing and directing debut of Robert Eggers, this is the first real standout movie of Sundance 2015 – and 2015 in general – that is deserving of your serious attention. If you’ve been following the festival through tweets and other write-ups: believe the hype, this movie is artful enough to reject ghettoization, and should be seen by genre fans and drama lovers alike.

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Originally titled The Witch of New Canaan Woode, Eggers sets the stage in a very dreary 1630s New England (with the forests of Ontario, Canada standing in), introducing us to a family that has been exiled into a solitary farm life away from the nearest plantation. If there is a main character, it is Anya Taylor Joy’s adolescent maiden, working with her mother, father, brother, and twin siblings to survive a harsh upcoming winter. Food has become scarce, and when a baby boy goes missing in the opening act, the family patriarch goes looking for a wolf to kill. Of course, as the title implies, there is no wolf. But who – or what – is the witch?

After looking up Eggers’ IMDb profile I am not surprised to read that he has primarily been a production designer, because this film utterly nails the setting and vibe of this story. From the chiaroscuro lighting to the immaculate set design to the stunning location photography, everything about this picture captures what I can only imagine life then was like, and Eggers used archives of historical documents to write an accurate script that is penned mostly from actual dialogues of the time. It’s got all the fire and brimstone of old-timey pilgrim/Puritan prose, with even the child actors of this film nailing that tricky New England accent.

This film is so good at what it does and sells the immersion scarily well. While The Witch never deviates from its central farm scenario (other than the woods beyond them), there’s plenty of drama to be mined from underneath these thatched-roof cottages to help you understand why witchcraft and Satanic magicks were so quickly pointed to as the cause of all evil. My only complaint? I didn’t want to leave this movie; I didn’t want to leave a world that could have been explored more and more with so many interesting philosophical questions and frightening implications.

But there is drama here, too; the kind of psychological stuff that is really fascinating when you appreciate this is taken from the annals of New England legend. Like the trials of Salem in the late 1600s, the finger-pointing in this movie becomes Biblical to the point of self-survival, and the intense screaming, crying, and family discordance that results from accusing someone of witchcraft adds to the already concrete-thick tension. This movie is scary, but it is also just so eminently watchable and pretty to look at; the scares are almost a relief, because it means the end of the intense crescendoing of violins and other string instruments that largely comprises the score.

For my money the most effective horror films have a sense of dread that never really goes away, constantly pushing the needle and raising the stakes. There needn’t be cheap jump scares every minute or two to create something tense if everything else in the production is unsettling, and this film has an atmosphere and tone that is so very, very dark. The script, with its many “thys” and “thous” and references to Jesus Christ as our lord saviour, keep us reminded that the 17th-century was a God-fearing time where prayer was the only answer to a sickness, and it is really pitch-perfect horror. Double, double toil and trouble: if this film does not make my top ten of 2015, it will be a very good year for movies.

One Response to “Sundance Review: The Witch”

  1. Libby says:

    Your review is such a good read, and it has made me want to see this movie. I really, really like your final sentence. Heh.

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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh

“It’s not going to be huge. He and I had been corresponding for a while. When I finally met him, he said, ‘We should collaborate.’ When John Ashbery says that to you, you don’t say when, you just say yes. It has not been easy to conjure this out of nothing. Sean Price Williams and I spent time with him, and it will appear on FilmStruck before the year is out…. I have figured out how to streamline things. I still have dreams of making movies with bigger budgets, and they might be considered to have more of a voice in pop culture. I don’t want to let go of that. I also realize that you grow up a lot of your life with wishful thinking and waiting. I have figured out ways to avoid doing that. I am working on a bigger movie about Nikola Tesla, set in the past, so it is not an easy film to make. I am also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise.’ That seems more likely to catch fire.”
Michael Almereyda Steps It Up