Friday, March 11, 2016

The Witch (2015)

The Witch (2015): written and directed by Robert Eggers; starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Grainger (Mercy), and Lucas Dawson (Jonas): Just about as dark as it gets for a horror movie. Robert Eggers riffs on everything from "Young Goodman Brown" to Kubrick's The Shining in this tale of dark Christianity extreme isolation, and Satanic goings-on. 

Set in New England in 1630, The Witch begins with its family of protagonists being exiled from a Puritan settlement for their religious beliefs (which may be even more Calvinistic than the Puritans). We see the first steps in that exile subjectively, from teen-age girl Thomasin's point-of-view. Her POV will dominate what comes after, though there are scenes that she isn't witness to. Probably.

Eggers drew on folktales, witch-trial court documents, and period testimonials for his inspiration. The film itself can withstand multiple, sometimes contradictory readings. Is it a paean to feminism? Is it a straight-up piece of Satanic horror? Is it a tale of madness in the woods? Is it a commentary on Calvinism? Is it a light-hearted romp? Well, no. It's not a light-hearted romp. Unless you actually are a Satanist. OK, so it could be a light-hearted romp for a certain type of person.

Filmed in the dark and humanless woods of Mattawa, Ontario, The Witch is ultimately a disquieting and unnerving 100 minutes of film-making. That it got a major release in theatres is something of a miracle -- audiences expecting another Blumhouse boilerplate horror movie clearly didn't like The Witch. So it goes. I think it's a major work of art from a young film-maker I'll be watching. And Anya Taylor-Joy is superlative as the sympathetic, frustrated Thomasin. 

But the actors are all really good, from Ralph Ineson as the bumbling, weak but well-meaning patriarch and Kate Dickie as the increasingly paranoid (towards Thomasin) matriarch through Harvey Scrimshaw (what a last name!) as adolescent Caleb all the way to the two kids playing the unnervingly carefree, creepy young Jonas and Mercy. A black rabbit delivers a fine performance, as does a black goat. 

Blood and gore are minimal, but when they come, they shock. Even the minimal score is creepy. This is about as good a film as one could hope for, and one that will probably spark conversations for years to come. Highly recommended.

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