THE WITCHMOVIE REVIEW
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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
By every single written account of the period, the Dark Ages of Europe were brought on by the terror and horror of religion. Ignorance and fear prevailed.
The Darkness won.
The accounts don't speak of only the hellish inquisitions that ruled with a malicious hand and built the dominion of Christianity. They also speak of the atmosphere religion created, causing innocent people to fear the most natural, most mundane of natural circumstance.
An unwanted rain was brought about by a curse. Milk going sour, spoilt food, a bruise, cut, menstruation, baldness, toothaches, all brought about by curse or God's capricious testing and punishment. Anything and everything unwanted or undesired as well as secretly wanted and desired - Every single thing you enjoyed and every single thing you suffered was the fault of the devil and your sin and God allowed for it all because You Are A Sinner. Even if you committed no sin, even if somehow you could avoid the act of sin by merely thinking of the sin, you were still a sinner because your sin was in being born.
This insanity was nothing glib with a wink and a nod. These were never flippant feelings. Centuries of harrowing, unjust oppression by the Roman Catholic and later Protestant churches had people in fear of their neighbors as well as the supernatural. Wealth was built in those days by calling your neighbor out as a witch and taking his property - including his wife and daughters - as recompense.
To seek answers to the suffering of menstrual cramps, toothaches, birth, and other natural ailments, people often prayed to God to forgive them the filth of having been born in sin. When their prayers were not answered soon enough, or they believed themselves at a loss of faith, these frightened people sought out other sources to punish for their misery and that was usually whoever was close by - including their own children.
Satan, demons, and witches not only lurked around every corner in the shape of other people, but in the shape of all animals, shadows, plants, and of course, invisibly.
This is the world that Writer and Director Robert Eggers creates in his highly atmospheric, yet slow-ly unfolding movie, THE WITCH. Yes, the poster has it spelled THE VVITCH, as Eggers intended to fully immerse his audience into this period piece, in a time and place where the letter "W" did not exist in widespread use.
Actor Ralph Inneson (FROM HELL, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS Part 1 & 2, GAME OF THRONES, INTRUDERS, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE) plays William, a man living among English colonists in America. One whose sepulchral voice is commanding, yet so boastful, so full of pride over his devout belief, that he besmirches and slanders all other Christians in his community as wanting.
Banished from the walled-off village, he takes his family alone into the uncharted American wilds: A place where they have never been.
William knows nothing of the land, but so what? God will provide.
Their eldest child and daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy in her first starring role),
Their son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw in his first starring role),
Their fraternal twin son and daughter, Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger).
During the course of their new life out in the wild world, Kate has a baby, Samuel.
However, William, being no farmer, is not up to farming on his own and his crops do poorly. Starvation looms with the oncoming winter, God is not providing, and William's family needs food.
So does he,
A. Seek advice and help from far off neighbors?
No way! William is a "All answers are in the Bible" kind of guy. They aren't, of course, so all William can glean from the good book is that he is,
A. Being punished/tested by God
This is all the Bible offers so William doubles down on prayer and seeking out the sinister source of their misfortune, which can't possibly be him and his ignorance in working the land to produce viable crops. So he obsessively seeks the grace of God in all things. Why? Because God would never abandon his faithful servant and family.
Yet why do the crops continue to wither?
Understand that William is not a characteristically evil man. He wishes harm to no one and seeks forgiveness for all. His love for his wife and children is sincere and resolute. Unfortunately he is also terribly frightened and horribly gullible, which makes him scared of everything. He must both love and be terrified of his invisible God whose capricious wrath and torments are mysterious and may or may not have anything to do with William's behavior, sins, or flaws.
William's ever increasing imagined horrors becomes the law of his hungry family, so they in turn grow ever more afraid to the point that they turn on each other as they try to find the source of their unseen misfortune.
This all takes a while to develop.
While they drive each other mad, the baby Samuel mysteriously disappears under equally mysterious circumstances. Left in the care of Thomasin, who is mystified by his disappearance herself (because nothing that happens can have an answer any deeper than, "It's God's way, and you shall not question God's way."), the first culprit everyone turns to is "Witch".
There must be a Witch in the woods. She curses their crops and stole their child. No other explanation makes sense and, in fact, we as an audience see a "witch" do horrible things to little Samuel, far off in the deep woods at night.
Mother Katherine has no idea what has become of her baby and she imagines all sorts of frights. Birth and her faith already leaving her physically and morally weakened and teetering on the edge, grief over Samuel's disappearance sends her right over that edge into full blown hysterical anxiety. That plus the mystery, plus the fact that William feels impotent in every manner of providing for and protecting his family, ratchets all of their tension up above the tree line.
Forced to hunt for food since he cannot grow it, William painfully discovers that his young son, Caleb, is a more capable provider than he.
There is seemingly no bottom to their suffering.
For everyone that is except the twins, Jonas and Mercy. Too young to know life in any other way, they merrily invent children's games, sing songs, and chase after the farm animals like Black Philip, their main ram. Rams are often vicious but adult males tend to indulge small human children of everything short of cruelty.
Such enthusiastic happiness when everyone else is miserable grinds on Katherine and William's grief, the two older children's stress, and Thomasin's guilt.
One hell of a depressing, slow moving slog through a movie that feels much longer than it is, yet a well made piece of cinema none-the-less. It's not so slow that it actually tried my patience.
The thing about all of this is, THE WITCH is marketed as a Horror movie and I'm just not seeing it. A Drama I'll grant you. A Mystery Drama, no problem. I'll go one further and call it a Psychological Mystery.*
Yes, these people terrify each other but that's due to their own irrational beliefs. I'm fully onboard with the fact that they believe them, it's just that their fears are so ridiculous that I can't feel for them.
Don't get me wrong. Just because you cannot fully accept another person's fear when they tell you that they won't use a Smartphone because it will steal their soul, doesn't mean that fear doesn't exist, however preposterous you know it is.
Yet that doesn't mean you'll share their fear either, however sympathetic you wish to be.
And all that said, I accept that the person's fear of a Smartphone is so great that they may kill another human being if they think that person is attempting to steal their soul.
The danger from that person is real even while their fear remains nonsense.
In THE WITCH, William's family believe things that aren't true: Invent causes that don't exist and then they insist that others accept them on face value. In their ever increasing, self-inflicted fear, they see and hear things that never happened and move to punish the innocent who did nothing wrong.
In short, they are all scaring each other with the drama they're inventing. They are all talking Horror but it is not actually there. They are all talking frights but again, it is not actually happening.
Writer/Director Robert Eggers, in both long shots, overall cinematography, and even music, pastes a strong Stanley Kubrick vibe to THE WITCH, though it's less inspirational that simply copied.
What Eggers does well is never let the movie go so far as to have us believe that there really is a witch.
Maybe she is real. Or maybe there is a homicidally insane woman living in the woods, preying on the credulous nature of a family that moved in too close for her comfort.
Or maybe we're just visually witnessing the whacked out tales that this family creates to explain things they aren't even attempting to understand: A skewed view of reality that drives them all into madness.
However, from start to finish, THE WITCH promises scary without ever delivering. In press junkets supporting this movie, that seems to be what Eggers was going for, so kudos for that. The man wanted to experiment. Possibly the very presentation of an isolated family who invent things that aren't there to explain their world, may influence his audience to invent things that aren't in his movie, to explain what they saw.
Or maybe they'll see this movie and realize that they too are being "terrorized and flattened by trivialities".
The actors all turn in a first rate performance so kudos to Eggers again. He really knows how to direct. He had four children, all newcomers, and he guided their characters all amazingly well.
Big kudos also go to Production Designer, Craig Lathrop (THE BOONDOCK SAINTS, COPYCAT, AMERICAN PSYCHO II, STUCK, WOLVES); Cinematography by Short movie auteur, Jarin Blaschke; Music by Mark Korven (CUBE, CRUEL AND UNUSUAL), as they all delivered what Robert wanted.
THE WITCH is not Horror, but the distributor shoehorned it into our genre to sell it. So it lives among us now.
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