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everything about this picture captures what I can only imagine life then was like, and Eggers used archives of historical documents to write an accurate script that is penned mostly from actual dialogues of the time.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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“When Bay keeps these absurd plot-gears spinning, he’s displaying his skill as a slick, professional entertainer. But then there are the images of motion—I hesitate to say, of things in motion, because it’s not clear how many things there are in the movie, instead of mere digital simulations of things. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a car chase through London, seen from the level of tires, that could have gone on for an hour, um, tirelessly. What matters is that the defenestrated Cade saves himself by leaping from drone to drone in midair like a frog skipping among lotus pads; that he and Vivian slide along the colossal, polished expanses of sharply tilting age-old fields of metal like luge Olympians. What matters is that, when this heroic duo find themselves thrust out into the void of inner space from a collapsing planet, it has a terrifyingly vast emptiness that Bay doesn’t dare hold for more than an instant lest he become the nightmare-master. What matters is that the enormous thing hurtling toward Earth is composed in a fanatical detail that would repay slow-motion viewing with near-geological patience. Bay has an authentic sense of the gigantic; beside the playful enormity of his Transformerized universe, the ostensibly heroic dimensions of Ridley Scott’s and Christopher Nolan’s massive visions seem like petulant vanities.”
~ Michael Bay Gives Richard Brody A Tingle

How do you see film evolving in this age of Netflix?

I thought the swing would be quicker and more violent. There have been two landmark moments in the history of French film. First in 1946, with the creation of the CNC under the aegis of Malraux. He saved French cinema by establishing the advance on receipts and support fund mechanisms. We’re all children of this political invention. Americans think that the State gives money to French films, but they’re wrong. Through this system, films fund themselves!

The other great turning point came by the hand of Jack Lang in the 1980s, after the creation of Canal+. While television was getting ready to become the nemesis of film, he created the decoder, and a specific broadcasting space between film and television, using new investments for film. That once again saved French film.

These political decisions are important. We’re once again facing big change. If our political masters don’t take control of the situation and new stakeholders like Netflix, Google and Amazon, we’re headed for disaster. We need to create obligations for Internet service providers. They can’t always be against film. They used to allow piracy, but now that they’ve become producers themselves, they’re starting to see things in a different light. This is a moment of transition, a strong political act needs to be put forward. And it can’t just be at national level, it has to happen at European level.

Filmmaker Cédric Klapisch