Review: “The Witch”

If it wasn’t clear by now, I’m a pick-your-moments kind of guy.  If I made a 10 Commandments of Storytelling, Thou Shall Pace Thyself would be very near the top.  It’s a commandment that Robert Eggers’s “The Witch” breaks, though there’s certainly escalation.  The final 15 minutes or so are a wild and grisly ride.  And yet…I couldn’t help but feel tired and rundown by the film.

In 1630s New England, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from a Puritan Christian community.  They take up residence on the edge of some very spooky woods.  Will characters in horror movies never learn!?

The Witch family

While the farmer’s eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is watching his infant son, the boy goes missing.  We see that he was taken by a witch and mashed into jelly.  (I wish I were joking — that’s an image that won’t leave my head anytime soon.)  After the boy’s disappearance, the fabric of the family comes undone.

There are some interesting storytelling choices here.  The film boats some tricky language for any actor, especially young ones.  But the cast handles it very well.  Fans of “Game of Thrones” will recognize Kate Dickie as William’s wife, Katherine.  Like on the HBO show, she plays another religious zealot.  In addition to Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin, there are three other children: Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and a pair of rambunctious — that’s a polite word — twins played by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson.

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For the majority of the film, it feels like everyone is shouting and hissing through bared teeth.  Not without reason, but it all gets a little monotonous.  The film drains its emotional stores long before it’s over.

Alfred Hitchcock defined suspense as the audience having information that characters do not.  His example involved a bomb under a table.  We the audience know it’s there, but the characters having a conversation at that table do not.  I’ll come back to Hitch in a moment.  As Devin Faraci pointed out, a lot of witch stories are structured as mysteries.  Is there or isn’t there?  I’m thinking of “Rosemary’s Baby,” one of my personal favorites.  But here, Eggers shows us that there is in fact a bomb in the woods.  And all the family’s squabbling about God’s will and what it all means is distressing in the best sense, because they’ve got much bigger problems.

“The Witch” is not constructed like most horror movies.  Few and far between are the jumps scares, and they usually involve something pretty ordinary — an ax going through a block of wood.  (So much wood chopping!)  Still, the atmosphere is thick and Eggers rings unease out of the ordinary like a goat shifting its gaze.  The goat, by the way, is Black Phillip, and he’s the best.

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One of my favorite sequences involves young Caleb in the woods.  He comes across a cabin…and its occupant.  There’s a great use of subjective camera — we slowly track into this mysterious woman as she stares right into the camera’s lens.  I literally shuffled back into my seat.

And then we come to that bloody climax.  What follows is a series of decisions that read like someone bolding, italicizing, underlining and then circling a phrase to make sure that we really, really get the point.  Additionally, the film travels in stock witch imagery which is never more true than the final moments.  It descends into camp for a film that has otherwise had a deficit of it.  (A deficit in camp…can a film have that?)

None of this makes “The Witch” a bad film or even mediocre.  It’s just not a great one.

Have you seen “The Witch?”  What did you think?  Comment below!

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