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Movie Review: The Witch

By Matthew Huntley

March 10, 2016

There's a light (over at the Frankenstein place).

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The plot of The Witch (subtitled “A New-England Folktale”) isn’t a terribly original or complicated one, and neither is the movie’s title for that matter, but its language, pacing and atmosphere go against the grain, which is probably why the film proves to be so uncommonly effective. I have a feeling most viewers won’t respond to it with the same positivity, and that’s understandable given that it’s not the most exciting or “traditionally” entertaining of horror movies. Nevertheless, I admired it for its boldness and the way the filmmakers stay true to their initial vision and presentation without succumbing to cheap and tawdry sensationalism just to make it more commercial. The movie is, in a way, an exercise in discipline, patience and craft, and it passes these tests rather well.

In 1630s New England, a devout Christian family is banished from their religious plantation when the father, William (Ralph Ineson), is accused of being too prideful and carrying on in ways that oppose the community’s conservative leaders. So he packs up his six-member family - including wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), two fraternal twins, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and newborn Samuel - and moves to a remote area in the woods, where he starts a farm and hopes he and his kin can live alone in peace.

Only they’re not alone. The family begins to realize the folk legend of a sylvan witch is all too true and, soon enough, certain members disappear; others meet an untimely end; animals are disemboweled; and anyone who remains alive starts pointing fingers and accusing the others of witchcraft. I won’t reveal which characters experience what, but the question driving the narrative is whether or not one of them has evil intentions or if it’s an actual witch wreaking terror.




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While this question did keep my curiosity afloat, it’s to the credit of writer-director Robert Eggers that this wasn’t the only thing holding my interest. I marveled in the rich and unique dialogue Eggers’ screenplay supplies its characters, whom it doesn’t paint with 21st century sensibilities or a modern-day lexicon. They say lines such as, “Come hither!” and “I conjure thee to speak to me.” The closing credits inform us much of the heavy language was borrowed directly from period journals, which is easy to believe, and the cast (including, or perhaps especially, the youngest members) is perfectly convincing portraying individuals who might have actually lived during the era. Each actor looks and sounds as if they really are 17th century New Englanders facing a spiritual and supernatural crisis.

This drama, combined with Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, Craig Lathrop’s production design and Mark Koven’s music, each of which is understated in its own way, generates a dark and sinister atmosphere, which is what we hoped they would do. And while the film does feel slow at times, its various elements collectively create tension and feelings of uneasiness that take full shape in the closing scenes, which is every bit as creepy and unsettling as a horror film with more blatant characteristics. The Witch may linger as we watch it, but in this particular case, its idleness helps it stay with us longer.


     


 
 

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