Release Date: Feb. 19, 2016
Running Time: 99 minutes
Director Robert Eggers’ The Witch is the 17th-century horror film about isolationism and religious extremism that Ken Loach never made. Well, almost but not quite. The staunch anti-establishmentarian would have kept this harrowing portrait of one family’s descent into hell grounded in reality as he pitted faith vs. common sense. Egger, though, makes it clear early on that evil forces—maybe human, maybe not—are conspiring against an exiled Puritan family that lives cold, hungry and alone on the edge of a New England forest. This decision proves somewhat costly: there is zero build up to the arrival of the family’s tormenter—a baby boy is stolen away while he’s in the care of his teenage sister, Thomasin (Taylor-Joy)—and some of the tension Eggers works hard to create through the naturalistic execution of his slyly economical script is defused because we already know who or what is lurking in the forest. That’s not to say Eggers doesn’t have a few surprises up his sleeve. All eyes are on Black Phillip, a goat that receives more than his fair share of attention from Thomasin’s younger twin siblings. Is Black Phillip just the source of amusement for the twins? Or is he in league with the witch? Regardless of Black Phillip’s true nature, Eggers really doesn’t seem that much interested in making an out-and-out horror film. Whatever supernatural elements The Witch may possess are there merely in service of Eggers’ sharp and distressing study of a family that turns against itself because of religious zealotry. Ralph Ineson’s father, William, is a man who so guilty of the sin of pride that it’s resulted in his family’s banishment from their Puritan plantation. Kate Dickie’s mother, Katherine, not only regards Thomasin as a burden but also blames her for the loss of her infant child. The bond between the twins is such that it causes friction between Katherine and Thomasin. Then there is Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), a teenager who wants to prove himself in the eyes of his father while he tries desperately to suppress his adolescent sexuality. The Witch truly begins to disturb when it pits parent against child, sibling against sibling. To quote Matthew 10:36, a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Eggers quickly transforms a divided family into a vulnerable family, one that is susceptible to suspicion, resentment and the influence of dubious outside forces. We see the family torn apart through the eyes of Thomasin. Taylor-Joy imbues Thomasin with a pragmatism that serves to counterbalance her father’s adherence to the word of God. She also finds within Thomasin a curiosity that plays a pivotal role at the end of The Witch. The relative calmness Taylor-Joy displays as Thomasin also stands in stark contrast to the panic that always seems to hold Caleb captive. He who is the child most affected by his father’s constant sermonizing. Scrimshaw finds fuel in Caleb’s deepest fears to make the young boy the most emotionally complex and spiritually confused of the family. Ineson manages to express William’s blind faith in a rational manner that prevents him from becoming a religious caricature in need of his comeuppance. He’s presented as much of a victim in The Witch as his children and his wife, whom Dickie portrays as a woman too consumed with grieve to accept the reality of her situation. The sterling acting and the well-defined characters are more than what Eggers needs to tell his cautionary tale driven by the witchcraft hysteria that gripped colonial New England. Arthur Miller certainly didn’t need to resort the supernatural to inform The Crucible. And neither does Eggers. The Witch is a prime example of a film that would have benefited from being shrouded in ambiguity. By pandering to its basic instincts, The Witch never quite casts as strong a spell as Eggers intends.
Aired: Feb. 18, 2016
Web site: http://thewitch-movie.com/