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.

image

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everything about this picture captures what I can only imagine life then was like, and Eggers used archives of historical documents to write an accurate script that is penned mostly from actual dialogues of the time.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

“Would I like to see Wormwood in a theater on a big screen? You betcha. I’d be disingenuous to argue otherwise. But we’re all part of, like it or not, an industry, and what Netflix offers is an opportunity to do different kinds of films in different ways. Maybe part of what is being sacrificed is that they no longer go into theaters. If the choice is between not doing it at all and having it not go to theaters, it’s an easy choice to make.”
~ Errol Morris

“As these stories continue to break, in the weeks since women have said they were harassed and abused by Harvey Weinstein, which was not the birth of a movement but an easy and highly visible shorthand for decades of organizing against sexual harassment that preceded this moment, I hope to gain back my time, my work. Lately, though, I have noticed a drift in the discourse from violated rights to violated feelings: the swelled number of reporters on the beat, the burden on each woman’s story to concern a man “important” enough to report on, the detailed accounting of hotel robes and incriminating texts along with a careful description of what was grabbed, who exposed what, and how many times. What I remember most, from “my story” is how small the sex talk felt, almost dull. I did not feel hurt. I had no pain to confess in public. As more stories come out, I like to think that we would also believe a woman who said, for example, that the sight of the penis of the man who promised her work did not wound her, and that the loss she felt was not some loss of herself but of her time, energy, power.”
~ “The Unsexy Truth About Harassment,” by Melissa Gira Grant