The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
I started hearing about The Witch almost a year ago. It’s not unheard of for a movie to get advance publicity, of course, but while it’s still in production? Then came the rave reviews from festivals. And trailers. And the more I heard about this movie, the more it sounded like the Second Coming itself. But, man, the more trailers we got, the more I found myself believing the hype. And then, finally, it popped up in wide release in the middle of February. This ain’t Oscar season, folks. At least, not usually. (This has been quite the February; Deadpool may still be stuck in people’s memories come the end of the year as well.)
The movie starts out with enough crazy to let you know you’re in for quite the ride: in the opening sequence, William (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ralph Ineson) is getting thrown out of a Puritan plantation in 1630 for, basically, being too Puritanical. He and his family march proudly out of the meetinghouse and head off to start a new life on their own in the woods. Fast-forward to at least five years later; the previous four-person family has grown to seven. Along with William is his wife Katherine (Red Road‘s Kate Dickie); eldest son Caleb (Oranges and Sunshine‘s Harvey Scrimshaw) and eldest daughter Thomasin (the big-screen debut of Anya Taylor-Joy); a set of fraternal twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson, both in their big-screen debuts); and a new infant, Samuel. (We know it has to be at least five years later, as Jonas and Mercy don’t appear in the meetinghouse.) Things have not gone well for the homesteaders; their barn has never been completed. And things are going extra not-well this year, as their corn harvest has been hit with the blight. It doesn’t help that, during a game of peek-a-boo, Thomasin loses Samuel; he’s swiped, literally, out from under her nose, and in the few seconds it takes her to open her hands, all she can see of who or what took him is a bush rustling at the edge of the forest none of the children is allowed to go into. Can things get any worse? Well, William drafts Caleb into woods expeditions to try and trap food, keeping them a secret from the rest of the family. They continually find themselves confounded by a particular rabbit…
Horror fans expecting a bunch of jump scares are going to be disappointed by this film, but I think everyone else is going to be blown away by it. This slow-burner reads like Brian DePalma filtered through Ben Wheatley, but more subtle than the former and with more
clarity–in the sense that no one ate any mushrooms they shouldn’t have been eatin’ (and there’s one throwaway-seeming line towards the end of the film that also rules out the other common cause of witch hysteria, ergot poisoning)–than the latter. The movie is phenomenally shot, with every camera angle designed either to show the bleakness of this family’s existence or the ever-present menace of the woods behind them. If I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect this movie of having been shot by Fred Kelemen, Bela Tarr’s cinematographer, which is about the highest compliment I can pay Jarin Blaschke. And to think, the best-known movie the guy had done before this was Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchet. He’s come a long, long way in seven years. Running in perfect counterpoint to the cinematography is the movie’s stellar music, which is likely to put you in mind, if you’ve been reading the articles and listening to it on YouTube, of the rejected Exorcist score done by Lalo Schifrin. The score was done by Mark Korven (Cube), and he’s really outdone himself here. (Yes, you can get the score on Amazon. I’m stoked. And no, I’m not an Amazon affiliate, so I get nothing if you click that link.) Of course, you can have a whole lot of gorgeousness with cameras and sound and still have a crappy picture. But if you had told me before I just looked it up that Robert Eggers is normally an art/production designer, and that this is both his first full-length script and his first feature as a director, I’d have laughed in your face. But IMDB tells me it is so. (It also says his next movie, which he is also writing and directing, is a remake of Nosferatu. And if I read that on the page of almost any other director currently working today, I’d be disgusted. Instead, I’m salivating at the prospect.) And the cast. Good living Satan, the cast. Yeah, everyone here is good. Most of them are great. But the performance that blows this movie into the stratosphere is Harvey Scrimshaw’s. Don’t get me wrong, Taylor-Joy is perfect as the pre-Plymouth Carrie, Ineson plays the religious fervor warring with the hard times with as fine a hand as one could ask, and Dickie does “going slowly nuts” as well as I’ve seen anyone do in recent memory. But Scrimshaw? This kid is going places. When you get to that scene, the one where Scrimshaw goes from “part of an excellent ensemble cast” to “hey, suckas, I just stole this movie”, believe me, you’ll know it.
If the movie has a flaw, it is that the final sequence is unnecessary. The movie could have easily ended on the striking last shot of the penultimate sequence, and I doubt anyone in the audience I saw the movie with would not have come to the conclusion that said final sequence gave us. Granted, it allowed one of the film’s main actors (trying not to be spoilery here) a chance to do a but more real acting and show off some prodigious talent, but it still felt like overkill. This is, of course, the most minor of quibbles when one is dealing with a movie for which the word “transcendent” doesn’t feel like hyperbole. The Witch may be the best film of 2015. It’s certainly the best I’ve seen by a country mile. This is a movie you simply cannot miss. **** 1/2