Friday, June 03, 2016

The Witch (2016)

Film: The Witch (2016)
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
Director: Robert Eggers
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Every year, it seems to be a tradition of sorts for a horror film to randomly become a critical pet.  Recent examples such as It Follows, The Babadook, and The Conjuring have dispelled the notion that a horror movie has to be something slash-filled, gory, and poor, something relegated to the back pages of a RedBox catalog.  This year, critics embraced earlier than expected The Witch, a psychological story of isolation and mysticism set in the 17th century in the early days of puritanism.  The film follows a family who is increasingly haunted by tragedy, and while there are occasionally problems with the story-telling, the movie lives up to its promise of intense frights.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is the story of a family in 17th Century New England, banished from their plantation for sins of pride (it's never quite clear what that entails).  The family, deeply affected but sparing in their words (and very devoutly religious), have a new son, but he is kidnapped by a witch who kills him to make herself younger.  The family is deeply shaken, and the mother Katherine (Dickie) assumes that her daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) must have had something to do with it since she brought the baby to near the edge of the woods, though her husband William (Ineson) disagrees.  The film progresses with more mysticism, as their eldest son Caleb (Scrimshaw) is lured to the woods by a now beautiful witch, and is tricked by her into a kiss, which eventually causes his death when he becomes possessed, and spits out a poisonous apple later in the film.  The movie progresses with slowly but steadily each of the children being murdered save Thomasin, who watches as her parents are killed (first her father by the goat Black Phillip, whom she assumes is possessed by the devil), and then in self-defense she offs her mother.  In the end, it turns out that the twins, who have professed the entire movie that Black Phillip speaks to them, is in fact the devil, who convinces Thomasin to sell her soul for a life of "deliciousness" in easily the most jaw-dropping and fascinating moment in the movie.

The film is good if you don't look at the sum of its parts.  The film is deeply effective in the way that it uses the claustrophobia of spaciousness.  We see, for example, that this family has nothing other than each other by showing miles of land and wilderness and how no one is around for days. This is reflected in the actions of the characters, particularly in everyone's attitudes toward Thomasin; after all, she is loathed by her mother for reasons that are not entirely clear, but one suspects it has to do with her youth and beauty, and her younger brother Caleb lusts after her throughout the film.  This isolation adds to the creepiness of the picture as there's no normalcy checkpoint-we can't see that this is just happening to this family, or for others to be there along the way to assure us that they understand there could be a logical explanation other than Thomasin having killed her family.  In the end, there's not much choice in her selling her soul-it's either that for the young woman, or dying of starvation, or being burned as a witch.  If you're going to die a witch, the film reasons, you might as well be one.

However, the film gives us very little insight into our main character, and considering it is her narrative that we are to center the ending around, it feels like a miss to not have given more of her inner soul.  When the devil asks if she wants a life of "deliciousness," quite frankly I don't know if I believe her answer considering she has been principally tasked with praying and protesting for much of the film.  I do like when a main character has enigma (and Taylor-Joy is quite good in what I'm hoping is a role that launches a career, because if she can sustain this she'll be someone I want to see again in pictures), but if you're going to have such a twist at the end of the film, it needs to feel earned and while I do like the idea of the twins truly being right (the goat is, in fact, the devil, despite it seeming so ridiculous early on), it's not entirely clear that Thomasin, so mindful, would want a pretty dress and to see the world since she's never expressed those desires either through her words or her deeds.  It flummoxed me a little, and it's the film's principle flaw-too much is left unspoken, and we are meant to fill in probably too large of gaps than should be expected in such a situation.

Still, though, overall I liked the picture and found it frightening as hell (pun intended).  What were your thoughts on The Witch?  Do you agree the ending doesn't entirely jive with the picture, or was there a scene I somehow overlooked?  Where do you think Anya Taylor-Joy goes next with her career?  And what other high-quality horror films have been lurking around in recent years that you'd recommend?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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