Review: ‘The Witch’ offers complex themes, frights

(This review first appeared in the Daily Lobo, and can be viewed here.) 

 

At first watch, there isn’t much meat on the bones of Robert Eggers’ “The Witch.” On a superficial level – thanks to its incredibly simple premise, small production scale and what could be interpreted as an ambiguous ending – it’s a skeleton of a movie, with small bits of flesh clinging to its ribs in the form of the occasional jump scare.

Don’t fall into that trap. It’s easy to think that the final product far outweighs the expectations that a horror lover may have for “The Witch,” but you’d be doing yourself a disservice in the process.

So how do you get the most out of the film, and experience it the way Eggers intended the audience to?

Step 1: Don’t go into “The Witch” thinking of it as a horror movie, but rather a period drama.

In a vein similar to how “Silence of the Lambs” is viewed by many cinephiles as a drama rather than a straight fright flick, watching “The Witch” through a lens that doesn’t call for scares, but rather deep examination of the themes that Eggers sets forth, will help moviegoers appreciate it much more.

Of course, there are horror elements here. The film is chilling throughout, the themes of paranoia, the occult and isolation manifesting themselves in ways that assures the audience is never really at ease.

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But at its core, “The Witch” is an analysis of 1600s Puritan America, and the overzealous sensibilities of its religiously devout and fanatical society. When viewing the movie in that way, it becomes a film with exponentially more depth, its statements on the dangers of physical and psychological isolation at the forefront and, yes, manifested in a titular witch.

Step 2: Prepare to be uncomfortable.

Eggers is merciless in the methods he utilizes to make the audience feel as uneasy as the family experiencing more and more supernatural occurrences. It’s not as much cringeworthy, nor is it perpetually eerie for the sake of being eerie. And while there aren’t any A-listers in the film, the cast is plenty powerful with their performances as the on-screen family becomes more and more distant. Anya Taylor-Joy in particular shines in a convincingly distressing performance, one that hopefully gets her many more offers for other dramatic roles.

From the intimate cinematography to the score reminiscent of a creeping, hooded danger following us on a lonely road at night, “The Witch” excels at providing a very different level of fright. The film mimics a slow, energy-draining ride to the top of a roller-coaster with your eyes closed – the audience knows a drop is coming, and a big one, but not quite when.

It’s a decidedly unorthodox type of horror, one that won’t work for those seeking superficial jump scares. But taken on a metaphysical level in tandem with the film’s motifs and themes, it all works together to create a symphony of dread, right up until the moment when it all comes to a head, and real blood is shed.

In a movie full of many tricks and underlying meanings, perhaps none is bigger than the family’s goat, Black Phillip. Without giving away too much (and believe me, it’s hard not to), Black Phillip represents what might be the most uneasy but majestically dark use of an animal in recent film history. He’s memorable, to say the least, and it’s easy to see him becoming an icon in the genre.

“The Witch” won’t please everyone. Indeed, the majority of movie watchers probably wouldn’t understand what makes it so appealing to others. Multiple viewings would certainly help, as would the understanding that sometimes the things that are implied in a film can keep you up at night as much as any slasher movie could.

 

“The Witch” is rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie 

Directed by Robert Eggers

2015

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Review: “The Accountant” too much movie for one film

 

(An edited version of this review originally appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.) 

There haven’t been very many Hollywood heroes like the one that “The Accountant” offers. Then again, Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Christian Wolff – an autistic bookkeeper-Terminator figure – could hardly be called a hero.

Nonetheless, the film displays the disorder as a strength, not just in Wolff, but in others. Our differences should be celebrated and embraced, “The Accountant” argues. Individuals with autism have as much to offer the world as anyone else.

It’s an appropriate message, one not explored in contemporary film as much as it should, let alone in action thrillers like the one brought to us by director Gavin O’Connor.

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Unfortunately, the film turns what could have been an in-depth exploration of a misunderstood disorder into a gimmick, one of a myriad over narratives that are part of an overstuffed, overambitious plot that is as varied in tone as it is tough to follow.

“The Accountant” has enough material for three movies, or even a short season of binge watch-worhty TV. There are so many moving parts involved that are easy to forget about, even though they are all interconnected in a complex web of…stuff that happens on-screen. It feels like a first cut of a film rather than a finished product, resulting in a two-hour affair that feels more like four.

At its core is Christian, whose affinity for being thorough leads him to success as someone who helps clean up finances. At least, that’s all he seems to do on the surface.

The film is its most engaging when it focuses on Christian in the first half hour of the film – his routine at work, his subdued nature (in an interesting, decidedly non-Affleck performance by Affleck), his daily dose of curated self-therapy he utilizes to live with autism.

It all works to a point, especially in tandem with the film’s start that covers a young Christian’s relationship with his parents and brother. It’s when Wolff is hired to help find the financial holes in the books of a robotics company that deals in the millions of dollars instead of hundreds that the film’s narrative begins to get muddled.

Over its runtime, “The Accountant” leaves the audience in the dark at so many frustrating points, not the least of which in the way it tries to connect every piece of its ensemble of characters to each other.

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There’s an admirable attempt to create a deeply layered story, and even glimpses of what could have been a very memorable work had much of its excess been stripped away. Most narratives are a means to an end, many of them laughably disposable.

The film almost knows it too, utilizing sound and fury at some of the most opportune moments to break up the lifeless, obfuscated hodge-podge of plotlines.

Affleck and most of the supporting cast is acceptable enough, though Anna Kendrick looks out of her element here, to the point that “The Accountant” seems like a totally different movie when she’s on-screen. This could be the darkest fare she’s been involved with in her career, and she does what she can for the role, but she’s simply miscast.

There’s a good film somewhere in “The Accountant,” perhaps even a great one that touches on the impact of autism on families over a number of years. But the audience shouldn’t be asked to seek out and fit those pieces together, in a piece so thematically and stylistically jumbled.

 

“The Accountant” is rated R for strong violence and language throughout 

Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal

Directed by Gavin O’Connor

2016

Review: In “Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker tells important story still relevant after 200 years

Some movies are meant solely to entertain, and some to shed light on contemporary issues. Some take it upon themselves to portray historical events through a medium that allows for visceral experiences, and some of those take it even further by connecting history to modern times.

Recent films such as Selma, Straight Outta Compton and even Zootopia fit a variety of combinations of those niches, all with one thing in common: they all comment on very real issues pervading societal discourse today, taking advantage of film to bring uncomfortable but necessary discussion to the forefront, whether through fiction or historical accuracy, family films or darker fare.

The Birth of a Nation joins that group, a movie that is perhaps the most forthright with the statements it makes, a no-holds-barred bloody symphony as enlightening as it is gruesome.

Nate Parker pulls triple duty here, having written and directed The Birth of a Nation as well as starring as Nat Turner, the black slave preacher turned rebellion leader who learned to see past the biblical ideologies that were keeping his and other slaves in line, instead using is as a rallying cry.

Parker himself is exceptional, nailing a most sincere portrayal of a slave who has learned to deal with his situation by making good with God and his owner, Samuel, who treats Nat and his other slaves ostensibly about as well as they could have been treated in the antebellum South.

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Turner may not know that yet, but once he finds out – bearing witness to the inhumane atrocities endured by other slaves – the agony he feels is painful but necessary to endure. Turner becomes a fighter, his literacy a weapon.

It’s a delicate, gradual change that is conveyed in Turner, profound and symbolic of what the audience knows is to come just a few decades later. While the script is not consistently engaging the whole way through, strong performances from the rest of the case keeps the audience invested in what they see on screen, in every horror that is depicted.

Memorable visual cues, as well as the score, also serve to put a timeless image to the plight at hand, one where systematic forces serve to blind those in a lesser positions in order to keep them in line. Symbols such as the subtle depictions of Turner as a Christ-like figure serve to manifest the film’s theme that there is weakness in using ideology to motivate the actions of one group of people, one side of a conflict.

When Turner reaches a tipping point and elects for conflict, unfortunately that’s where The Birth of a Nation leaves some to be desired, and where Parker the director makes questionable choices. As a whole, the film movies along fairly quickly – never dragging – but also placing so much focus and attention on Turner slowly opening his eyes to the plight of slaves beyond his own plantation that the payoff feels a little rushed by comparison to its buildup.

Blood is shed as Turner almost – almost – becomes someone coldly seeking retribution, and not fighting for what is right by him and others in his situation.

Parker doesn’t revolutionize storytelling; the narrative is straightforward, which is probably the best way to depict the brutally honest nature of his script. It’s a solid directorial debut, with just a little more to be desired from its third act.

Thankfully, it doesn’t reach that point completely, and by its final moments the film does well to depict the long-term impacts of the film’s events, and the small part they had leading up to the much grander conflict of the Civil War.

The Birth of a Nation is a powerful film, evocative of themes we’ve seen played out on screen before but imploring the audience to pay special attention to the figurative shackles placed on the arms of slaves. It forces us to confront America’s dark past in a way that makes it hard to neglect what is happening in 2016.

 

 

The Birth of a Nation is rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity

Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley

Directed by Nate Parker

2016

 

Review: Hell or High Water is a surprise marvel of a film with much to offer

Even in the barren, almost post-apocalyptic world of middle-of-nowhere Texas, not everyone’s motivations are one in the same. There are different connotations to “getting your hands dirty” depending on who you meet.

That’s the foundation of the premise for Hell or High Water, a marvelously tense and bleakly honest film built on contrasts, and on showing the interplay between those contrasts.

That isn’t to say the only way this film can be enjoyed is on a metaphysical level. It’s a more straightforward offering on the surface, and still an incredibly enjoyable and memorable experience, certainly one of the best to be had at the cinema this year so far.

One of the film’s biggest strengths lies in its script, which provides not only fully-realized characters with dynamic motives, but also ensures that nary a moment is wasted. Right from the opening sequence, it’s clear this is a smaller-scale, intimate film about two brothers robbing banks with different mindsets as they go about holding up tellers.

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Chris Pine (Star Trek, The Finest Hours) and Ben Foster (Warcraft, Lone Survivor) are superb as the two brothers who take it upon themselves to become short-term criminals in order to save their family’s farm, at a time when big banks provide no favors to the citizens they serve. Both are virtually unrecognizable – in a good way – and their performances effectively convey why they’re doing what they’re doing, which isn’t completely similar.

The film does a good job showing the contrast between the two, but it would be wrong to say it focuses on them. Appropriately, just as much attention is placed on the rangers chasing them, as well as the local denizens who exhibit very different ways of enduring desperate times.

So much focus is also placed on the visual aesthetic, something immediately eye-catching and mesmerizing, especially when certain colors come into play that seem downright alien. Hell or High Water won’t win any awards for visual effects, but the way it highlights the solitary, lonely setting while still keeping an intimate gaze on its characters is worthy of recognition.

The music, however, easily has to be one of the top two or three scores of the year so far, and it would take some fantastic work by films in the coming months to overshadow it. It’s simultaneously subtle and ominous, like a coyote hiding behind a yucca while stalking its prey outside a lonely Texas town. The music itself is almost a willing participant in the on-screen heists.

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While the narrative starts rather simply, it certainly gets more complex as the film goes on, having commented on multiple very real societal issues by the time the credits roll. There’s never a clear antagonist or protagonist as the film makes clear where characters came from and what fuels their actions, making for an effective and enticing character study of the lonely and destitute.

Hell or High Water also comments on the consequences of capitalism, its cyclical nature and the tendency of its proponents to fall victim to it. Consistently having enough money is a commodity that few can afford here, and the variety of ways that fact manifests itself amounts to the creation of a detailed world that at times seems like its holds the last remnants of civilization.

While exploring all these motifs and themes, the film remains briskly paced with huge entertainment value, and a climax that is both open-ended and also incredibly satisfying. Whether for the analytical filmgoer or the one just looking for a good time to be had, watching Hell or High Water once certainly isn’t enough.

Five or 10 times might not be sufficient, either. Not for this world, with is so fully realized and detailed that you’re sure to find something new with each viewing.

In a Nutshell

Hell or High Water is a tense, taught marvel of a film with much to offer for movie buffs of both the contemplative and spectator variety.

9 / 10

 

 

 

Hell or High Water is rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality

Starring: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges

Directed by David Mackenzie

2016