Review: The Witch (2016)


The Witch is an extraordinary film that fundamentally illustrates two things. Firstly, it strongly shows that independent cinema still has a beating heart. Secondly, it showcases the virtues of the cinematic form, which is at a crucial time when the existence of the medium is being questioned amidst the equalitarian view of content and a so-called golden age of television. On a personal level, the film represented one of those rare nourishing cinematic experiences that were I to have every year then the sad state of affairs of the cinema would be tolerable.

Before the ending credits start, there is a message that appears on screen which says, “This film was inspired by many folktales, fairytales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records. Much of the dialogue comes directly from these period sources.” The written declaration is the primary virtue of the Witch. Writer/Director Robert Eggers nearly reaches Kubrickian levels of exactness, with his meticulous construction of 17th century New England. In fact, at worst one could accuse the film of merely being an exercise in slavish period recreation however this is countered by Eggers’ excellent direction.

Firstly, Eggers’ framing is disciplined and poised. It allows for detailed shots of many of the environments such as the vastly tall and sinister woods, the small farm that the family inhabit and their secluded darkly brown house. Eggers holds the camera still for many moments throughout the picture, which results in an acute sense of constant confinement in the situation that has befallen the characters. Moreover, it gives the infrequent scenes of the Witch a heightened sense of terror because we are witnessing the creature and its practices in a very procedural manner without any explanation by either the creature or the people in the story.

Furthermore, Eggers has constructed an intrinsically quiet and introspective film that when watching it strikes one as intruding upon an exceptionally powerful and private prayer. As a result of this quality, seemingly ordinary sounds such as the thrashing of torrential rain, the laughter of children and the neighing of a horse heightened the senses into a state of constant uneasiness and shuddering. As much as the atmosphere and imagery, Eggers has a firm understanding of the importance sound design in a horror film. It subtly reinforces and strengthens an underlying sense of fear.

All of this sure-handed direction is encapsulated in a five-minute scene in the midst of the third act. The downtrodden central family have been searching for their only son (Caleb) who was tempted by the Witch living in the woods, and he returns to them in a weakened state. As Caleb lies in the family barn, his family stand by his side debating about their future. The sequence is chilling and indelible in its simplicity and seamless tonal changes.

At first, it starts out as a grisly display as the awakened Caleb is describing the pain and breakdown of his body while convulsing and trying to spit out a giant object in his throat, which turns out to be an apple. At this moment, the apple represents an ironic twist of fate as he lied about looking for apples earlier in the film when actually he was in the woods with his father. At the same time, the horrific image is a powerful reminder of the omnipresence and omniscience of the title character.

Then the sequence becomes serene as the young boy describes his experiences of seeing Christ and achieving a sense of peace and transcendence in the last moments of his life. Finally, the scene takes a feverish and paranoid turn as most of the family decide to renounce their eldest daughter, Thomasin who is played with captivating innocence and enthralling mischief by Anya Taylor-Joy. They do this because they believe the young girl to be a Witch who has brought about all the misfortune that has struck the family in the recent past.

Aside from the film-making, which is effortless and potent in its insular scope, the scene is also effective in conveying the central theme of the picture. There is a sense of interplay between community and religious purity that pervades the entire film. The latter can only be achieved if it is within the confines of the former. At the beginning of the film, the family get excommunicated from their puritanical community due to an unspecified religious crime. For the rest of the film, they are left to make sense of their commitment to God in the face of this event, crippling poverty and escalating personal catastrophes.

As events unfold, there is a sense of distance that develops within the family, which contrasts with their attempts to accept God’s will individually. The previously discussed scene shows the family temporarily join in a communal prayer in order to free their son of the pain that he is experiencing. However, the overwhelming suspicion and isolation that has divided the family up until to this point fundamentally prove to be their downfall as events take a far more sinister turn in the tail end of the picture.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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