Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Movie Review: The Witch (2016)



Cutting the frills and getting to the chills. This is The Witch.


The plot: In 17th Century America, William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are all excommunicated from their plantation. They build a farm for themselves in the forest, but soon discover that strange things are happening around them. It seems like a witch is in these woods.

For as small as the cast is, and considering how the majority of them are children, this is a superbly well-acted and surprisingly well-casted film. I say “surprisingly” because, even though Ineson is probably best known nowadays from Game Of Thrones, I’ll always remember him as Chris Finch from The Office. Once the pieces clicked together and I realized that this guy has a special place in the British Vile section of my brain, he genuinely surprised with how intense he is as the Puritan father. He embodies the film’s fascination with the notions of piety and sin, trying to redeem the people he considers to be born into sin and constantly having the weight of his own perceived sins on his shoulders. Opposite him, Dickie carries some serious emotional weight in her character, being broken by the actions that his family have become a part of, and even the actions that they haven’t. Scrimshaw needs to keep at this acting gig, because he is easily the strongest actor of the lot. He balances out his youthful innocence with his curiosity about these ‘new feelings’ that he is feeling which, considering they end up with him looking at his sister in troubling ways more than once, is shown in a very realistic way. Grainger and Dawson as the younger twins have all of one mode, that being tiny annoyance, but they thankfully don’t make it so overt that it ends up detracting from the scenes around them. Taylor-Joy… wow, it’s kind of unsettling just how well she goes through her character’s emotions, from playful malice to genuine fear to sheer distress and back again, without going as insane as the people around her.

This isn’t quite Shakespearean dialogue, but it does have that same air to it where you can be forgiven if you didn’t catch all the words being spoken. It’s this weird cross between modern-day English and the more Irish-tinged Middle English (“The droughte of march hath perced to the roote” and what have you) that, from what I can tell, is chronologically appropriate so I can’t fault them for accuracy. Nor can I fault them on the writing itself as, even in the scenes when the crying out makes the dialogue a bit difficult to parse, you can still tell what is going on. Hell, once you actually start to get a handle on their speech, which admittedly takes a few scenes, the words being said are startlingly well written in how they convey the Puritan theological ideals at the heart of the film. Then again, I think it’s what’s not said that ends up carrying the most weight. Rarely if ever at a point in the film do they actually say anything along the lines of exposition, which can only mean that the writer/director had enough faith in his own skills and the audience’s intelligence that he could sell the story on the visuals. Needless to say, he does.

If every horror film was judged strictly on their atmosphere, this might well be one of the finest ever made. You can feel the rough grass and twigs beneath your feet, the blood splattered on your face, the sheer enormity of their fear on your head… and pretty much every other part of your body. The atmosphere is so thick as to wrap its hands around the audience’s throats and, when the hysterical strings kick in, squeeze until every breath leaves your lungs. I know that this is a lot more visceral imagery than I’m used to writing, but you have to understand: There is a very primal and instinctual mode to the film’s approach in creating terror, one that taps into something almost innate in the human brain to seep into and spread until you’re nearly paralyzed. I’d almost call this meditative, except meditation is meant calm the body down, not make you feel like you’re in the midst of a heart attack. The dreary and grey-soaked look of the film already sets the tone for chills, and when it’s backed by Mark Korven’s constant wick-burn of a score and the film’s overall restraint in how much imagery it shows, it sets one’s teeth on edge in record time. Not that this is a constant thrill ride though, as the restraint in what is shown also allows for more sombre and quiet moments to carry the film’s dramatic load.

And speaking of said dramatic load, don’t think that this is entirely an experience of a film; there’s an awful lot of brains to this flick. The way it frames the concept of witchcraft, that being close to the time when Salem became one of America’s most famous towns, within the mind of these particular Puritans is fascinating. Consider that this is a family that were excommunicated from their plantation, when the Puritans themselves are people so religiously uptight that the English kicked them out (thank you, Robin Williams), and you can see why such an importance on sin is placed on the father’s words. The way the film juggles a lot of personal moral questioning, where they and in turn the audience have to really consider what truly defines a “sin”, with some classic metaphors sewn into the whole story being about a conflict between man and what is essentially nature. In that vein, the film can almost come across as a coming-of-age story for Thomasin and Caleb, with the fears and expectations that come with children becoming of age in that culture. There’s also something potentially unsettling about how Christianity and witchcraft are portrayed side-by-side, especially when it seems like the witch could just go full Maple Street and have the family kill each other without having to interfere too much. Without spoiling the ending, it reaches a horrifying conclusion that only becomes horrifying when you consider just how “sinful” the situation becomes, given how this film likes to toy around with that very concept.

All in all, this is a film that’s so good that both Christians and Satanists have willingly endorsed it… and oh my God, you have no idea how happy I am that that isn’t a joke. The cast is outstanding with some of the best collective child acting I’m expecting to see for a very long time, the writing is tremendously clever with how it weaves its themes and metaphors into the story and the direction breaks the audience down to their most basic level and reaches straight for the heart, never letting go even after the credits are over. If you have any liking for horror films at all, make it a point to check this one out. It ranks higher than Zoolander 2, because intentionally stupid or not, this film is a hell of a lot cleverer. However, and please do not let this show as a slight on either film, but I’m genuinely more fascinated by The Lady In The Van’s approach to metafiction than I am this film’s approach to horror. It’s just a matter of personal preference on that one, possibly more so than any other listing I’ve made yet.

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