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THE WITCH (review)

Review by Sharon Knolle
Produced by Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen,
Jodi Redmond, Jay Van Hoy
Written and Directed by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie,
Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

Synopsis: After a Puritan family experiences a string of extraordinary bad luck, they begin to suspect that a witch is responsible… and that one of their own small family might be to blame.

Robert Eggers’ Sundance sensation The Witch is a remarkable debut, but does it live up to the fantastic hype?

Well, yes and no. The buzz is overwhelming at this point, so it’s bound to disappoint if you’re expecting The Greatest Horror Film of All Time.

But you’ve likely never seen anything quite like it before.

Even if you walk out with a vague feeling of “Is that all there is?” you won’t regret seeing this uniquely haunting film.

Eggers’ debut is about a family in 1630 New England who leaves their settlement after the stern patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) clashes with the religious elders. Refusing to yield to the majority, he takes his family – wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and baby Samuel – to an isolated spot where they try to eke out a living on the edge of a forbidding forest.

Soon enough, things start going terribly wrong.

The crops won’t grow, but much more disastrously, baby Samuel disappears in Thomasin’s care. Katherine grows increasingly despondent and can’t help blaming her daughter. Their desperate, near-starvation existence adds a note of hysteria to the growing mistrust among family members: William is keeping secrets from his wife and the twins spend most of their time talking to the family’s rambunctious goat, Black Phillip, which strikes Thomasin as odd and maybe even a little sinister.

With William’s strict teachings to his children that they are all born full of sin, any little transgression is regarded as proof of their sinfulness. In this kind of atmosphere, it’s no surprise that the children willfully play at forbidden games and joke about which one of them might be a witch. Or that Caleb had a crush on his older sister Thomasin since she’s very pretty and there are no other girls for miles.

When yet another tragedy strikes, the jokes become actual accusations and watching the family turn on each other is horrific enough in its own way. Taylor-Joy is fantastic as Thomasin, who as the eldest, has the most pressure put upon her. As the intimidating father, Ineson is also terrific, although as the film begins, his thick English accent and old-fashioned way of speaking is hard to follow at first.

This is one of those horror films that’s at it’s strongest when it focuses on the toxic family dynamic, rather than something “out there” that’s trying to destroy them. It’s only when the film veers sharply and undeniably into the supernatural that the film falters. What was best implied or hinted at is almost laughable when portrayed explicitly.

You may not find the sudden switch in the film’s tone as jarring as I did and you may even applaud the over-the-top ending. But, honestly, would we be talking about the movie at all without that utterly demented finale? Whatever else you want to say about it, it’s the most memorable movie ending in years.

Even though I was underwhelmed with The Witch, I’ll watch whatever Eggers does next. He’s signed on to direct a remake of the classic silent horror film Nosferatu, and I’m very interested to see what he’ll do with it. Werner Herzog put his own compelling stamp on the vampire film and Eggers certainly has the potential to do so as well.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars 

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