“Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent.”
-Lord Summerisle (The Wicker Man )
I am done with trailers. It’s an almost impossible task to avoid every trailer, but if there is a film I want to see, I am going to do my best to avoid it. Hail, Caesar! was an excellent film, but the trailer forced my mind to expect something different. By the time I corrected my expectations, the film was halfway through. Unfortunately, I had a similar experience with The Witch. Tag lines and reviews coming out of Sundance called The Witch “super scary” and “the most horrifying movie of the year”. The film’s trailer also painted an eerie picture, but that isn’t the truth. The Witch is perfectly creepy, but scary it is not.
A family in 1630s New England is forced to leave the Puritan plantation they have settled because of the father’s disagreement with the political and religious rule. William (Ralph Ineson) finds a perfect lot to start his own homestead. After a year or so passes, we find the family somewhat struggling to make ends meet. As their eldest daughter is watching their youngest child in a field, something mysteriously takes the young babe into the surrounding woods. The family then becomes torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic, and possession.
Director Robert Eggers delivers one of the best debuts in recent memory. Eggers has been part of film for a while but has never directed a film. The talent for shot framing and drama that Eggers delivers is hard to fathom. His ability to build tension and pain seems to be something he was born with. He has a command of the camera that only the most experienced filmmakers usually have. But as good as Eggers’s direction is, the writing might be even better.
Eggers researched folktales and other 17th century writings to try to make this the most authentic story he could. He wrote the entire film in Old English, and somehow it feels smooth and perfect. The plot is slow, but tense, and the dialogue is exact and full of purpose. In a lot of ways this film is very minimal. It only shows what is absolutely necessary. Eggers was so obsessed with making this film authentic that he brought in historians, experts in the clothing of the period, and even the only roofer who knows how to create the type that would have been available at the time. The film is beautifully shot with all natural light and is on par with anything in The Revenant.
The acting is outstanding as well. Anya Taylor-Joy gives a star turning performance as Thomasin, the oldest daughter. The film is hers to carry, and she does just that. The difficult language flows softly off her tongue as though she was somehow transported from the past directly to today. Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays her brother Caleb, is another child actor who is asked to do a lot and does a terrific job. The performances all around really are something that make this film worthy to be seen.
But I am having a hard time recommending this film to anyone. To say I enjoyed it wouldn’t be completely accurate because the subject matter makes it virtually impossible to enjoy. The film continues to punch you in the gut over and over until you can hardly bear to watch. The narrative is slow, and the one hour and thirty minute run time feels like forever. The scariest elements of the film take place in the last few moments. This wouldn’t be a problem if I wasn’t expecting something different. This isn’t the film’s fault. Overall, the movie is somewhat of a technical masterpiece, but I just can’t see myself watching it again.