Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review: "The Witch"

Director: Robert Eggers
Runtime: 92 minutes

Since debuting at last year's Sundance Film Festival, Robert Eggers' The Witch (stylized as The VVitch) has been building up hype on the way to its actual release in theaters. Eggers debut, unlike so many raved-about Sundance darlings, has thankfully proven to be worth the wait. Despite few outright scares, this period horror piece (which doubles as a folk tale) commands attention due to Eggers uncanny ability to tighten the screws with truly frightening mastery.

Given the setting (17th century America), it's entirely understandable that The Crucible is one of the first things to come to mind when trying to make comparisons. Yet unlike Arthur Miller's classic work, Eggers is more inclined to amp up the spook factor, rather than shine light on centuries-old superstition and fear-mongering. The Crucible is a bleak and sobering story, while The Witch dives headfirst into its world to tease the characters (and the audience) with ambiguity. We watch The Crucible in horror because of what we know. We watch The Witch in horror because of what we don't. 

It's all part of that nifty little thing called suspension of disbelief, and Eggers is smart to ease us into the possibility of the supernatural. When the first truly ominous (and bloody) act occurs on screen, it's mesmerizing and disturbing. Yet it's also something that could be attributed merely to human insanity. The act of violence that befalls the central family is a tragedy, but not an omen (basically, the dingo got their baby). 

And, for some time afterwards, The Witch refrains from further freakout sessions in favor of showcasing a family in mourning. Said family is played by a talented ensemble, most notable because the majority of actors are children. For roughly one third (Eggers film comes in at a clean 90 min) of its run time, The Witch hardly seems like much of a horror film of any sort. Atmospheric, slow-burn horror relies on keeping the audience waiting, but there are moments here when you'd be forgiven for thinking that Eggers had completely lost the plot. And that's where he gets you.

Whatever may or may not be real in The Witch is secondary (to a point). What matters more is Eggers ability to immerse us in a world where threats of Satanic violence are taken with deadly seriousness. In horror films set in the present, ideas of the supernatural are treated with a shrug by protagonists until too many things start adding up. In the world of The Witch, however, fearing black magic isn't something that will earn you scoffs of disapproval.

Eventually, the time comes for Eggers to put his characters (as well as viewers) through the physical and emotional ringer. Yet the last stretch (more like the entire second half) continues to play out as a series of carefully planned escalations. By the time The Witch reaches a conclusion (those fearing an ambiguous end can breathe a sigh of relief), it has earned each and every disturbing moment. The cast is uniformly excellent, led by breakout star Anya Taylor-Joy as a conflicted girl on the verge of womanhood, and Ralph Ineson as her imposing, guilt-ridden father. Tech credits are all first rate despite a limited budget, with Jarin Blaschke's stark imagery casting a shadow of evil across the most mundane of landscapes. Meanwhile, Mark Korven's varied and intense score ranges from disquieting to absolutely nerve-shredding. At the end of 90 exhausting minutes, even the most devout of nonbelievers might be tempted to mutter a prayer the next time they deal with the unexplainable. 

Grade: A-

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