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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