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everything about this picture captures what I can only imagine life then was like, and Eggers used archives of historical documents to write an accurate script that is penned mostly from actual dialogues of the time.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.

Quote Unquotesee all »

“Film festivals, for those who don’t know, are not exactly the glitzy red carpet affairs you see on TV. Those do happen, but they’re a tiny part of the festival. The main part of any film festival are the thousands of people with festival passes hanging on lanyards beneath their anoraks, carrying brochures for movies you have never and will never hear of, desperately scrabbling to sell whatever movie it is to buyers from all over the world. Every hotel bar, every cafe, every restaurant is filled to the brim with these people, talking loudly about non-existent deals. The Brits are the worst because most of the British film industry, with a few honourable exceptions, are scam artists and chancers who move around from company to company failing to get anything good made and trying to cast Danny Dyer in anything that moves. I’m seeing guys here who I first met twenty years ago and who are still wearing the same clothes, doing the same job (albeit for a different company) and spinning the same line of bullshit about how THIS movie has Al Pacino or Meryl Streep or George Clooney attached and, whilst that last one didn’t work out, THIS ONE is going to be HUGE. As the day goes on, they start drinking and it all gets ugly and, well, that’s why I’m the guy walking through the Tiergarten with a camera taking pictures of frozen lakes and pretending this isn’t happening.

“Berlin is cool, though and I’ve been lucky to be doing meetings with some people who want to actually get things done. We’ll see what comes of it.”
~ Julian Simpson 

“The difference between poetry and prose, and why if you’re not acculturated to poetry, you might resist it: that page is frightening. Why is it not filled? The two categories of people who don’t feel that way are children and prisoners. So many prison poets; they see that gap and experience it differently. I’m for the gap!”
~ Poet Eileen Myles