The Witch

The Witch (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The experience of watching this meticulously crafted horror film is like being shoved into a dark, utterly silent room in which the space is lit only by flickering candles, a translucent dusty shawl permanently stitched around our heads, and we are forced to make sense of what exactly it is we are seeing, where we are possibly going, and what mysteries lie behind our limited sensations. It respects instead of cheapens the horror genre from the beginning right to the very end, a rarest quality that should be acknowledged, celebrated, and, hopefully, become a source of inspiration of future filmmakers with genuinely scary stories to tell.

“The Witch,” written and directed by Robert Eggers, is one of the best horror picture in years, one that deserves to be remembered for years to come. One of the main reasons is its hyper-realistic imagery. It is easier to embrace the universe of a story being told when what we see on screen is in line with what we imagine a specific time period to be.

Let us take a look at the clothing as example. The patriarch and his family have found a spot of land after being banished from a plantation. The family of seven start a life there and so the clothing look worn, dirty, lived in. It looks like the colors have been drained out of them. Because of what they wear, we believe that every day must involve hands-on hard work, that the lifestyle is the complete opposite of glamorous, perhaps not completely hygienic based on today’s standards. The vision and determination of getting the clothing exactly right benefits the work immensely because it functions as a conduit to transport us back in time. It becomes easier to buy into the reality of the tale and so the characters’ fears inevitably become our fears.

Something malevolent is out there in the woods. Or is there? The screenplay demands the audience to look very closely. Is the reason why the family is unable to grow crops due to a paranormal being out there in forest? Or is it that starvation itself is the trigger that forces the highly religious family to believe that an evil force is preventing them from growing food? There is an incident involving a baby suddenly disappearing that leads us to consider that perhaps it is the former. But certain images after the mysterious vanishing can be purely symbolic or imagined, not at all uncommon in intelligent, well-researched horror films in which the stories are drenched in myths and folk tales.

The acting is impeccable all around. From the leaders of the family who must conceal many secrets and endure hardships (Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie) to the young children (Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson) who claim to communicate with a goat named Black Phillip, everyone delivers not only a strong performance but also at least one memorable scene that sticks in the mind. Traumatizing events accrue; we become uneasy not only because of the environment and how the family dynamics shift over time but also when it comes to the animals in the farm and those that visit it.

Siblings Thomasin and Caleb, played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw, respectively, are the heart of the picture. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw have very strong presences, faces made for tight closeups, and chameleon-like qualities in the way they move, emote, and speak. I very much look forward to their future endeavors.

Just about every square inch of the film is alluring. The sky often looks gloomy but the open spaces harbor a mystery. When a character goes outside in the dark holding nothing but a lantern, one can hear a pin drop because the tension is so high. We squint our eyes a little more to anticipate what might be lurking in the darkness. Mainstream and sloppy horror pictures usually go for the scare after a few expected beats. This one does not. Instead, it drowns us into feeling anxious for minutes at a time. At times it downright disturbs.

Equipped with a very disquieting score, “The Witch” is clearly from a filmmaker with a clear vision and inspiration. There is a quiet confidence about it, despite being a debut feature film, that made me believe it is exactly the movie he wanted to make. My most enthusiastic congratulations to writer-director Robert Eggers for creating a piece of work that deserves to worm its way into the collective imagination.

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