Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015)

New England around 1630. The family of William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) goes into voluntary exile from their main settlement for theological reasons I never got a grasp on and which the film might have kept purposefully vague, given how focused and clear everything else about it is, even its ambiguities.

In this place and time, this means the family goes right into the wilderness, settling down near a patch of woods. Things don’t go well at all for the family. Katherine’s baby disappears into the woods while Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest and the closest we have to a main protagonist, is playing with it near the woods. The child is just silently taken when Thomasin closes her eyes while playing peek-a-boo with it. William tries to explain the inexplicable with what we must imagine to be the sneakiest wolf in existence, but in truth, it was taken by the witch living in the woods to do what witches traditionally do with babies.

The loss of the child throws Katherine into deepest depression and certainly doesn’t make for an easy relationship between her and Thomasin. All the while the family’s crops are hit by some kind of sickness and during his attempts at providing meat, William doesn’t turn out to be much of a hunter – or the woods are against him. There’s even worse waiting for the family, and things will truly fall apart.

Generally, stating that a film isn’t for everyone is stating pretty much the obvious, yet I still feel the need to explain that Robert Eggers’s The Witch will most certainly not be for everyone, though for those of us who can appreciate it, this is an incredibly affecting and effective movie. If you’re going into the film expecting something even vaguely following the rules of modern mainstream or the slightly different ones of much of modern indie horror, you might be sorely disappointed, for this is a film that seems very little interested in genre conventions good or bad. In fact, for parts of the running time, The Witch approaches its horrors from the perspective of a historical psychodrama, though one that tries its hardest to share in the historical views of its characters concerning the supernatural.

Herein lies one of the film’s biggest strengths: while all of the supernatural or possibly supernatural occurrences here can be explained as outward manifestations of/metaphors for all the fears the characters’ faith brings with it and/or (the film is very conscious of the fact it is both) just barely helps them cope with, and everything they repress and leave unsaid, they are also presented through the mind set of the film’s characters. For them witches do exist as a matter of course and a black he-goat might in fact be the devil, so the film does indeed show us witches and the supernatural the way the family sees them. Eggers keeps to this approach stringently, successfully putting quite a bit of effort into making beliefs that are a difficult pill for most of its prospective audience to swallow real, even trying to keep the film’s dialogue as close to the written sources of the time to add a further level of authenticity and strangeness.

At the same time, the film – clearly very consciously – avoids treating characters who are deeply religious and superstitious in a way that can sound just plain insane to you or me as the Other, people for us to gawk or snigger at and feel superior to. Not just by sharing their view of the supernatural world for ninety minutes, but also by approaching them with a psychological realism that turns what might be difficult to relate to into something deeply human, with this only further pushing the audience into nearly sharing the characters beliefs and world view and understanding them for ninety minutes or so. These people may believe in things that sound strange or outright insane to us, yet there’s quite a bit less dividing them and us than we might pretend. With this understanding quite naturally also comes empathy, and with empathy comes an intense emotional wallop once things become increasingly intense and horrifying for the characters, who are not only beset by a witch but also their own failings. And, going by William’s Puritanical conviction of the essential sinfulness of everyone, those failings are as myriad as they are painfully human.

In this context, as a (non-New) atheist, I found it incredibly refreshing that the film neither just assumes an audience will (or needs to) share its own spiritual assumptions nor goes the route where beliefs we don’t share are things made for ridicule that make those carrying them less than human. It is very uncommon for a film to show characters like these as anything other than mere fanatics, and fanatics exclusively, so it is particularly affecting how clear the The Witch is about this being a loving family, with William not the clichéd religious patriarch who rules with an iron fist, but a decent man who truly loves his family and cares for them while struggling to keep with the demands of his faith and the harsh life he has damned them to. Of course, love doesn’t necessarily save anyone or anything.

I was also deeply impressed by the actors, who have to bring life to dialogue written in – and at least partially quoted from – the style of the time and place as it has come down to us in primary sources and need to go through intense, often painful, emotional scenes without sliding into the melodramatic or overly artificial. Anya Taylor-Joy is absolutely brilliant, and even the younger kids – Harvey Scrimshaw in particular - do some fantastic tour de force stuff here.

Eggers’s direction is on the same level as his script and the actors are, bringing all kinds of feelings to life – the loneliness and oppression of the woods (a place that can’t help but suggest the supernatural), the hard life the characters live even without folkloric witches besetting them, but also the moments of joy and love. There’s so much going on here without the film ever feeling overloaded that it’s a joy to watch. Or rather, a harrowing experience full of emotional tension and horrors, but you know what I mean.

The Witch also happens to be rather brilliant at being a horror film, creating a world so real – even if it is very much un-real – its horrors become just as real, even if they are as strange as those in the film’s folkloric sources. I, at least, won’t forget this one quickly.

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