Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Witch (2015) Film Thoughts


Unwilling to atone for a mysterious act was in defiance of a newfound colony, extreme puritanical father, William gathers his family, and delves deep into the uncharted lands of New Hampshire in the name of religious conviction. With his wife, Katherine, daughter, Thomasin, son, Caleb, and two smaller siblings, they find promise in a plain at the foot of a foreboding and dark forest. It isn't long before a fifth child is born to the family. During another day of farm chores and settlement, Thomasin is left in charge of watching over little Samuel, when he is suddenly snatched away in broad daylight. Painful tragedy, while seemingly enough gives way to fear, deception, and ultimately encroaching despair, as the lone family seem to be driven closer toward madness by a malevolent outside forest..deep in the wood.

True to many stories of wrenching hardship that befell many new American settlers throughout the latter 1600s, Robert Eggers's The Witch, not only fashions a stark, bone-rattling tale of ancient fear, the film also presents one of the most compelling existential horror visions this side of the original ALIEN. Endless isolation and dread invert the aforementioned film's legendary claustrophobia, and presents open space as every grain as terrifying, and packed with poetic wonders. While we never know the circumstances that led to the family's defiant exodus from their home community, we instantly gather just how much faith binds and defines them via father William, who soon imparts to his son that the land has been unforgiving, and that deception is necessary in light of the news of a lost child. "We will tame this forest, Caleb. It will not consume us." Early into matters, the masculine dominator philosophy of William's faith is laid bare, with the God fearing staving off the assault of nature, which is always creeping in.

While a more ordinary narrative might have given us no real hint of something supernatural in the woods, leading to a more psychological horror, Eggers chooses to confirm matters immediately, prompting questions as to the whys of the shape-shifting crone. The film is not asking, is there? It is asking, why is there? And soon after, the film starts turning tight these screws of folklore, fictions, and fear, to the point that even such a seemingly well-kept family unit finds themselves at odds with each other. And with sparse dialogue interspersed between often desolate and beautiful imagery, we are immersed in a world that owes as much to Malick, as it does to William Harris Weatherhead. Unforgiving cold and careful use of Mark Koven's brilliant score, complete with diabolical use of natural quiet sends home a grand fear that only life on earth can deliver. 

But the truest testament to The Witch's success lies in Eggers's terrific use of casting and unerring attention to period detail. From the clothing to the tools, to the home, and even the tactile remnants of an England left behind. The entire work is impeccable in how it captures a bone dry life of austerity in the name of belief. That without this guiding force, no sane being could survive in these woods. That perhaps these same beliefs fashion a perverse opposite with enough isolation, and questions. Something that befalls the entire family when the chores seem to bear little fruit, and prayer no longer seems to be enough. Ralph Ineson, is quake inducing as William, a staunch father of the faith, struggling to maintain his choices, all while the world seems to conspire against him. Kate Dickie's Katherine, is overpowered, proud, yet increasingly brittle as her family seems primed to an increasingly evident doom. She longs for sense to all the madness surrounding them, and is a tremendous counterpoint to William. But the film's true secret weapons are with Anya Taylor-Joy's Thomasin and Harvey Scrimshaw's Caleb, who see and wish to assert agency into the fray, but find themselves at the behest of forces beyond simple comprehension. Thomasin's observational abilities find themselves at odds with the family's longing for something simple as an answer, while Caleb only wishes to do what is right for everyone. It's painful to witness their respective tragedies, and yet by the finale, one might just have been another symptom of a father's pride. All family members, turning belief in each other into modes of save and harm.

The film considers the new world, and the implications of the white encroachment into often inhospitable territory, coupled with religion's often ambivalent feelings about nature. The constant separation between powers of the cross versus the often contradictory laws of earth beyond civilization. While the story here is set in New Hampshire, not too far away in Massachusetts, people like Anne Hutchinson had been questioned for her strident beliefs, which ultimately led in large part toward the founding of Rhode Island. There is also the story of the minister, Roger Williams which fits well here. But what of many others? Those who found their faiths at odds with community, only to find themselves at the mercy of a less forgiving landscape. Not everyone found salvation in the wilderness. The Witch, also serves as a dramatic exploration of what happens when pride comes face to face with the natural world. A land without pluralism, a forum for distinct voices is often one doomed to repeat the same mistakes time and again. And often left to cycle the same fears and prejudices throughout history.

So yes, there is indeed a witch in that deep, dark hollow, and it takes many forms. But is it truly nature? Or rather our own vanity, spewing repressed dark viscera back into our own faces? 

The Witch, is a remarkable horror achievement. 

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