Though we'd already seen The Witch at festivals I sent a friend to see it this weekend, a non-horror guy, to see if he'd like it. Meet Eric Blume. - Editor
The Witch debuted last January at Sundance and finally got a wide release via A24 this weekend. It’s borderline shocking that this movie is being treated like a Hollywood horror movie, because it feels more like a foreign film, with the same essential disdain of fanatical religiosity that’s usually reserved for something like Cristian Mingiu’s great 2012 film Beyond the Hills. And in tone, it’s thoroughly austere: we’re thrown into the 17th century setting with as much reverence and severity as we are into the 19th century world of The Revenant. I read somewhere that the latter was tough to shoot… The Witch must have been so, too, with everyone making a lot less money to be miserable.
The plot centers around a Puritan family who is banished from their community and forced to move to an area bordered by an ominous-looking forest. In the movie’s first ten minutes, the family newborn is snatched up by something living in that forest, and the family unravels from there. It’s a contained universe from which Eggers gets maximum tension, putting a slow squeeze on you from the start and never quite letting go.
The film plays beautifully off of how incredibly creepy the Puritans were. But Eggers doesn’t stop there and also harnesses what's creepy about the woods (specifically, their insulation); farm animals (their seeming placidity); and twins (everything). He even conjures memories of how creepy Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is. The Puritanism is the front-and-center text, but the puritan (small p) is the subtext, and Eggers puts the characters’ guilt, shame, confusion, and marriage to sin into a continuous wash cycle. The family dynamics feel true and perverse, and the performances he captures from all six actors are whoppers. Lead Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the oldest daughter, has the baby/sinner face of a young Michelle Williams and carries the movie with complete authority.
Visually, the movie looks as one might expect, with the drained-color palette that’s popular in non-Puritan horror movies. But early in the picture, Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke use streaks of daylight on the actors that due the period costumes occasionally recalls a Vermeer painting, without being self-conscious about it. The filmmaking team seems to have made The Witch with their hearts in their throat, and their full-throttle approach gives the movie a genuine force. It’s not a major picture, but the debut of perhaps a major talent. Eggers comes at the film not just to scare you, but to make you feel dread in the best sense. The culmination at the end, while true to its horror roots, has a release with a surprisingly exultant comic edge to it. Eggers has a nice sick streak.
Did you see The Witch this weekend? Sound off in the comments. (Previous posts on The Witch)