The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)

The Witch is very creepy. It has to be. There’s a lot of scary music, done to scary effect. Cuts to black and the like. Ominous forest. Cut to black. Very creepy.

Whether or not it’s scary is another matter. It’s somewhat disturbing. But it’s set in the seventeenth century and it’s serious. So it’s not like the characters have much happiness ahead of them anyway. There’s nothing idealized. Their religiosity, the production design, the costumes, director Eggers creates a fantastic verisimilitude.

It’s based on actual witch trial court records and contemporary accounts.

Of course, it presupposes witches. I mean, there are some very subtle hints at another explanation, but there’s a witch like five minutes in. There’s a demon rabbit. There’s all sorts of stuff, even before the film hits the third act when it becomes a series of responsibly budgeted supernatural set pieces. So it’s about witches. Well, it’s about this impoverished seventeenth century farming family who has witches interfere with them.

For the most part, the film’s pretty good. Eggers is a fine director. Craig Lathrop’s production design is great. Everything looks and smells miserable. Jarin Blaschke’s photography is good. Mark Korven’s music–scary or not–is effective. Not ambitious, but neither is anything else in the film. Eggers is always very concerned with his adherence to historical reality–or his recreation of it–the film’s tightly wound.

Occasionally, it seems like the film’s going to break free of its many constraints–there’s a lot of talk about taking lead Anya Taylor-Joy–teenage daughter in the family–off to town to become a servant for another family. The promise of town–just seeing something besides the family’s house and, occasionally, the dense forest–works to open the film up for a while. It seems bigger. But it’s not bigger. It’s still just as constrained. The implication is another responsibly budgeted device from Eggers. He does a fine job making this film.

Lots of good acting. Taylor-Joy’s quite good until the somewhere in the second act, around the time father Ralph Ineson starts accusing her of being a witch. At that point, everything Taylor-Joy does becomes suspect, because–since there’s nowhere to go–eventually everyone (except Ineson) becomes a witch suspect. The film doesn’t move through the suspects and clear them, it bunches them all up at once and then puts them aside–physically in some cases–while Ineson continues his breakdown.

Ineson’s breakdown is one of the bigger disappointments in the film. He’s very good at being the suffering father, who can’t get on the right side of God no matter what he does. Though the family ended up on the farm in the first place because Ineson couldn’t stop telling the other Puritans about the right side of God. It kind of matters, but really doesn’t. The Witch’s real history is nowhere near as compelling as the implied history.

The witch stuff–the possibility of a witch targeting the family–comes in real early. Early enough there’s not any actual character development, which is another of the film’s efficiencies. Setting a film in the seventeenth century and not having to worry about character development? Makes things easier.

Kate Dickie’s okay as the mother. She gets a bad role. At some point she just becomes hysterical, which is no doubt realistic but… so what. You’ve got demon rabbits. You can have the mother character not become hysterical to the point of caricature. Beautifully lighted, realistically costumed caricature.

But the best performances are from the twin toddlers–Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson–who cause such trouble around the farm. But also might be agents of the dark one. Eggers is subtlest with the toddlers. Tween Harvey Scrimshaw is becoming a man, which apparently meant perving on your sister (Taylor-Joy) in the seventeenth century, and Eggers uses it to ominous effect. But the toddlers are just obnoxious toddlers. Obnoxious toddlers just happens to be almost no different from demonic ones. It’s Eggers’s deftest move in the script, which sorely needs some deft moves.

The movie only runs ninety minutes and Eggers keeps it moving–until the third act, which still moves just off the eye-roll cliff–but he keeps it moving by keeping it lean and manipulative. He doesn’t have creative solutions to narrative problems because he doesn’t bother with narrative problems. It’s reductively told, which becomes obvious just over halfway through but the production values are so strong you don’t want to think Eggers is going to aim so low.

The film never wastes its actors because it never gives them anything more than exactly what it needs to succeed, so it doesn’t fail anyone. Sure, Ineson could’ve had better scenes but so could Taylor-Joy, so could Dickie. But they didn’t need to have better scenes; not for where Eggers was going.

It does move well. At least until the third act, when Eggers just gives up on the idea of protagonists, leads, or points of view and goes all in on the manipulative. But, by then, who cares. The Witch isn’t disappointing or frustrating or even tedious (until the last thirty minutes). It’s just… eh.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Robert Eggers; director of photography, Jarin Blaschke; edited by Louise Ford; music by Mark Korven; production designer, Craig Lathrop; produced by Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Rodrigo Teixeira, and Jay Van Hoy; released by A24.

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Grainger (Mercy), and Lucas Dawson (Jonas).


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