Evil takes many forms
America’s past is often the fodder for award-worthy films. For the most part, however, these stories tend to be ones of triumph, about situations in which America, despite her problems, took a step in the right direction. Sure, slavery was bad, but we can cheer at Amistad or Lincoln because we see heroic Americans fighting the good fight against it. The same is true of most Civil War pictures. America, however, has not always been so kind or so virtuous. The Witch takes us back before the founding of the country, to the era of Puritan settlement to spin a tale of holiness and horror. It’s a beautiful film that deserves praise, but is also a frustrating viewing experience.
William (Ralph Ineson, Guardians of the Galaxy) and his family have been banished from their Puritan town for “prideful conceit,” which is another way of saying that they are trying too hard to follow the letter of God’s laws and bumming out the other Puritans. Undeterred, William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, Game of Thrones), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and infant Samuel, retire to a remote homestead. It’s a hardscrabble life, made all the harder when Samuel disappears while in Thomasin’s care. As the difficulties of their exile and the possible evil of their surroundings press in, the family falls apart.
I can’t remember the last time I wanted to love a film as much as I wanted to love The Witch. And make no mistake, there’s a lot to love about the film. Horror has, of late, been about shock or suggestion. In the 21st century most of our horror films have been either “torture porn” or “found footage” (or, sometimes, both). The former privileges visceral presentations of violence done to human anatomy. The latter is all about “realism,” and the strictures of found footage mean that rarely do these films look “good” in a traditional sense. In the starkest of contrasts, this is one of the most beautiful films of the year — if it is not nominated for cinematography awards, then those awards are a sham. Shot digitally and using almost exclusively available light, scene after scene is simply gorgeous to look at. Though historians may quibble about the accuracy of the Puritan world we see, there’s no arguing that The Witch effectively conjures a world that’s engrossing to behold.
Another thing The Witch has over most horror films is that it is terrifically well-acted. Because the monsters or the mood take precedence in most horror films, actors usually only have to deliver some inane dialogue and look scared. But it’s packed with stellar performances. The real joy is Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin. This is basically her film debut (she was uncredited in a scene in Vampire Academy), and she has a quiet intensity about her that makes it hard to look away, even when she’s apparently doing “nothing.” She holds her own against the much more experienced actors who play her parents. Ralph Ineson (who hasn’t had a breakout role that Americans would recognize, but has worked steadily in smaller film roles in Guardians of the Galaxy, amongst others) is impressive for his stoic, taciturn portrayal of a patriarch who rules his family like God above rules all of Earth. Her mother is played by Kate Dickie, who fans will recognize from Game of Thrones, and she performs the bulk of the film’s emotional work. Even the younger actors hit a creepy vibe that works in the film’s favor.
It’s also hard to complain about Lionsgate’s The Witch (Blu-ray). The digitally-sourced 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is top-notch. Detail is strong throughout, with plenty of resolution in close-ups, and a well-resolved “haze” in the background. Colors are muted, both for a kind of historical vibe and to emphasize the ascetic lifestyle of the Puritans. Black levels are deep and consistent, with no significant artifacting. The set’s DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is just as impressive, if a bit more subtle. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, with the surrounds used to create an effective atmosphere. Because the dialogue is taken almost exclusively from actual transcripts or writings from the era, it’s nice to have subtitles for some of the more obscure phrases.
Extras start with a commentary by writer/director Robert Eggers, who is enthusiastic and informative about the film’s achievements. There’s also a 28 minute Q&A featuring Eggers and Taylor-Joy. A shorter, EPK-style featurette spends 8 minutes with the cast and crew.
The Witch suffers from a sagging middle. The first 20 or so minutes of the film are amazing, as we get a glimpse into this long-forgotten world and learn about the characters. Some weird stuff starts to happen, and we’re not sure why. Then the film’s final 10 or so minutes are pretty amazing, as the masks come off and we learn what’s been going on the whole time. Those final 10 minutes are beautiful and hair-raising in equal measure, and a fitting end to a “New England Folk Tale,” as the film is subtitled.
But I don’t think it’s just a matter of trimming a few scenes in the editing bay. Rather, I think the problem with The Witch‘s middle is a structural one. We’re taken to the world of Puritan America, and we watch as weird stuff happens to an isolated family. The film, at least at first, adopts Thomasin’s perspective. The things that are happening to her seem impossible, but we know she didn’t cause them. But as the film progresses, her family becomes more and more suspicious of her — and why not, since she’s an unmarried young woman, ripe for temptation by Satan’s dark promises. Here’s where the disconnect occurs, however — we watch as Thomasin’s family increasingly blame her, which we know is wrong. On the other hand, we start to learn that they are right, at least insofar as demonic forces seem to be at work. This situation creates a frustrating viewing experience as we can’t really side with the family (since they’re wrong about Thomasin) and we can’t really side with Thomasin (since she’s wrong about demonic influence). Instead, we end up watching a bunch of backwards people hash it out, and before we get to those killer final 10 minutes the whole affair seems boring and hardly worthwhile.
The Witch earned a lot of press as a rare horror-themed entry in the Sundance Film Festival. It earns a spot in that company by being a beautiful indie film that’s supremely well-acted. Horror fans might be disappointed by how much Puritanism they have to sit through to get to the good stuff. At least the Blu-ray release is worth picking up.