With a sullen, diligent patience, The Witch brews something fierce. An arthouse horror from Sundance 2015 that’s slipping its way (perhaps momentarily) into the mainstream light under the ever-supportive gung-ho distributor A24 — the leading champions of unconventional, challenging art, both good and bad (in this writer’s humble opinion) today spearheading their first official wide release — director Robert Eggers crafts an expertly downgrade colonial potboiler not likely to win over a plethora of admirers, but damn sure to please those who get with its downbeat groove.
Though always running the risk of monotony and style-over-substance, Eggers nevertheless challenges himself whenever he sees fit, and makes the most of every little 1630s-based moment on screen. Its atmosphere comes from a committed, well-crafted place, and special care is placed into each-and-every minuet detail to have the thrills come effectively throughout its time-and-place. It’s masterfully executed, if never especially gripping, but proves itself to be exactly the sort of anti-jump scare horror flick fans of the genre need today. Sometimes its good to go back to the basics.
As old-fashioned as horror films come, it’s hard to predict just where The Witch will stand with audiences. Its untraditional take on a traditional story is sure to gain followers, but whether or not it’ll gain mainstream appeal is unlikely. Nevertheless, Eggers makes a fine first impression with his first time behind-the-camera — establishing a confidence, resistance and diligence that’s simply astounding. A production designer for a number of years prior to his filmmaking debut, his love and care for fine and appropriate period dressing is as sharp and elegant as could be, and comes with a varnished, attention-driven eye. At times, his film runs the risk of letting the set dressings overtake from the film at hand. Not so much in a late-period Tim Burton sort-of way, mind you. More in-a-sense that they could run away with the entire picture without a flinch, no matter how drab and morose they may be.
But that would also assume the characters and the moral quandaries that suffer them are less-than-worthy of our focus, and that’s simply not true. In fact, in dictated and refined fashion, The Witch has perhaps some of the most considerate and well-groomed characters I’ve seen in some time. The pain-staking lengths Eggers, who also wrote the film, goes to provide an authentic, wrenching depiction of the time period these characters live in — and often suffer in — is gob-smacking in nearly every facet. Hours upon hours must have been spent on every piece of clothing, every layer of wood placed, every piece of bark slammed by William’s axe. Just thinking about it all leaves me dumbfounded. The Witch is a stunning work of resilience, and to know it pays off handsomely is most definitely assuring.
Eggers’ film is less about scaring us out of our wits than it is leaving us in a perpetual state of dread, and to lead us headfirst into that boiling cauldron is Mark Korven’s (Cube) unshakably eerie score. A commanding force to be reckoned with, Korven’s masterful work constantly drapes us in a maddening spiral not unlike Thomasin’s encompassing anxiety. It’s as taunt and unaccepting as anything in The Witch, and always keeps you invested in the madness laid within. Whenever the film runs the risk of going soft, or even slightly losing your concentration, Korven comes to snap you back, grab your neck, stare down into your eyes and insists you plead for your mercy. It’s uncompromising in all the right ways, classical and contemporary all-at-once — the kind of music that’ll settle into your bones forever. It’s quite possibly the best score of the year, and we’re less than two months into 2016.
And one would be remiss to not mention not only the well-groomed cinematography and editing by Jarin Blaschke and Louise Ford, respectively, but the give-it-our-all (in a good way) performances by every actor involved — namely Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie. So often the latter must pull out the emotional heavy-work as a mother in constant turmoil, but the consistently more downplayed work by Taylor-Joy and Ineson often level-up to her commitment. A character of quiet regression, it’s often what Ineson doesn’t do on screen that speaks out the most, though his hypnotic baritone voice often makes you wish he would more often. And newcomer Taylor-Joy is an absolute find — holding a maturity well beyond her years, and an elegancy poised to lead her well through her bright future.
There’s a lot that can be considered “off-putting” about The Witch. Some complaints may or may not be justified. Yes, it’s a little dull. Yes, there’s a lot left unanswered about these characters, especially regarding their past. Yes, it leaves a lot to be interpreted at times because of this. But the majestic beauty of The Witch often comes from its relentless, bleak ugliness. It’s an unbridled, impeccably-made feature from a filmmaker destined for brighter (a.k.a. darker) future. It’s a meritorious achievement in concentration and contemplation, offering us unsexy ideas and high-strung morals in the most undaunted methods, one set to alienate more than it’ll warm towards. But those who love these kind of movies are destined to be taken in by Eggers’ spell. And they should follow his blasphemy, for they deserve to be rewarded for their efforts — just like the filmmakers. For the right folks, The Witch is a devilish good time.