Sunday, February 28, 2016

I love thee marvellously well


The Witch is an extraordinary work of horror, phenomenally capturing a time and place long gone, but which remains with us still in memory.  It even manages to be at least a little bit scary in the process—which is more than you can say for something like 99% of all horror films made, and nearly 100% of all horror films with The Witch's kind of critical reception.

Written and directed by Robert Eggers
With Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Granger (Mercy), and Lucas Dawson (Jonas)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Lately it seems that every four or five months there is yet one more film that's arrived to CHANGE THE FACE OF HORROR.  They each spend a good year riding the festival circuit before securing a normal release for normal folks, picking up all manner of overpraise along the way from all the well-intentioned people who appear to want to like horror movies, but for whatever reason just can't bring themselves to do it unless those horror movies are desperately and self-consciously arty.  These people will then ride through hell and back to sing hymns to the few art-horror films they find which appear to be made with any kind of competence, and they will ride and they will sing, whether or not the objects of their affection are actually truly worthy.  This is what happened to It Follows, a conceptual darling of a film that wound up deeply unsound in its actual execution; this is what happened to The Babadook, an emotionally draining experience that is indeed rather good, but isn't that scary; and this is what happened to Spring, a complete piece of misogynistic shit.  I expect it's one of the factors that drove the hype for Under the Skin, too, which is sort of the opposite of misogynistic, at least in theory (and yet which is nonetheless even worse than Spring).

But now comes The Witch—or, to use its fun full title, The Witch: A New England Folktale—which is likely the best of all the films to arise from this particular current, and seems to my eyes to be the one most clearly deserving of the gushing, embarrassing praise of its many supporters, who (regrettably) tend to be the same people who thought It Follows, The Babadook, Spring, and Under the Skin were each top ten material, and who therefore can and should be discounted at least a little bit.  Then again, it's also the artsy-fartsiest of lot—well, maybe it's not actually fartsier than Under the Skin, but Goddamn, there's hardly anything that could be.  However, The Witch's arts and various farts are all in service to creating a completely coherent (and very dangerous) world for us to explore, rather than the kind of tiresome obscurantism for obscurantism's own mere sake that some art-horror movies find themselves so deeply invested in.

It's also the only one of these films that legitimately pushes real boundaries, to the extent that I wonder, in regards to one particular shot—rather early in the film, jolting the rest of it with a deeply upsetting, genuinely demonic brand of energy which never fully dissipates—whether writer-director Robert Eggers consulted an attorney, or used CGI, or what, because I'm not even entirely sure it's lawful.  In any event, it's awfully, awfully gross.  This makes it of a piece with the rest of film, however, which places the most neotenous 19 year old in history in its central role, playing a girl of (at most) 14, then somehow shoots around (or casts around) the curious fact that she's 5'7", and shows her backside without any particular leering intent, but with some abandon nonetheless, in its best effort to allegorize her sexual (and spiritual) awakening, in opposition to her ultra-patriarchal heritage.  (An element of the film which may also explain what happens to that poor baby.)  But then The Witch, of course, is also a movie where a woman in her twenties french kisses a tween boy in an act of devilish seduction, which naturally ends with the lad a bit the worse for wear at the end of it.

...Is this thing European?

The point is, it uses images of sex and sexuality the same way it uses everything else: to keep pushing the underlying feeling that everything about the world which it has made is, if not completely corrupt, if not literally fallen, then truly atavistic—scarcely different in kind than the world of animals from whence our species arose, and to whence our heroes have apparently returned.  This feeling isn't too hard to find in The Witch in the first place, because the film, as you know, takes place on the American frontier back in Puritan days, and this would be hell on earth for a whole host of reasons already, even before anything overtly supernatural begins.  The Witch, to get on with it, is the story of a family trapped between austere religious cultists on one hand, and the brute facts of mere survival on the other.

This is where we begin, in Massachusetts during the days when various splitters were being thrown out of the colony, along with their families and their supporters.  Some of them founded their own successful colonies; some of them went out alone into the wilderness to fend for themselves.  William and his family are amongst the latter category, and once banished from the plantation, William, his wife Katherine, his elder children Thomasin and Caleb, his younger twins Mercy and Jonas, and his infant son Samuel travel beyond the edges of the map, and try to make a part of it their own.  They work hard, but all they really accomplish is to build a house (which I should further qualify by calling it "a house, of sorts").  And soon enough things get even worse: not long after they arrive, Thomasin is out playing with Samuel, and in the literal blink of an eye, the babe is gone.  For Thomasin, what happened to Samuel is a mystery.  But we follow his abductor: and while there is a solid, solid argument to made that The Witch might have been even better had it played its hand more ambiguously, in this particular New England folktale, the witches are quite real, and they are at Satan's business.

The loss of Samuel begins to cleave the family, but it's not till other misfortunes begin to accumulate that they descend completely into backbiting and recrimination, culminating in the children screaming "Witch!" at each other, and the parents coming close to losing their own minds, too, albeit each in their own way.  The result is a story that only takes on a completely cognizable form in retrospect.  In the going, it's far more vignettish, an agglomeration of frontier melodrama interspersed with some truly far-out horror imagery; and yet the encroaching supernatural element provides a drive to the film that carries it to its unexpected and rather satisfying conclusion.

As far as the visualization of The Witch's horror goes, it never surpasses that first shock, and it rides a curious and (in some respects) self-defeating line of showing plenty of nasty things—it is not a particularly coy film, in my estimation—but never really going full-bore, and making its imagery the major point of its presentation.

Still, how ungrateful is that, when what it does show is often spine-tingling enough?  The single best shot in the movie is staged for all the world like a photographic version of the kind of nauseating woodcut you might doscover squatting in the middle of a book on witchcraft, just waiting for you to find it—so that it could burn itself into your memory forever.  Animals, or more accurately the forms and shapes of animals—perhaps, most accurately, I should say "the deep natural unknowns which animals represent"—play a major role in this scene, as well as in many others.  The ultimate effect is a riff on Lars von Trier's Antichrist, which makes its own arguments against the value of life, only The Witch does it through methods that aren't quite so defiantly ugly on the level of cinema.

Chaos doesn't quite reign.

(I did, however, almost write "on the level of crowd-pleasing cinema."  I believe that ought to be correct—for am I not the populist here?—and yet I don't think my crowd was especially pleased.  It's possible they were simply stunned and bludgeoned into silence by the content of Eggers' film, rather than its style; after all, the former, as previously noted, does indeed occasion some fairly difficult stuff.)

Anyway, one of the precious things about The Witch, if not the most precious thing, is what it looks like (and sounds like): if it winds up splitting the difference between mood and spectacle in its narrative without any true expertise, you can't say the same thing at all about its aesthetic underpinnings, which elegantly combine the well-machined horror of our modern era with its more serious, period piece pretensions.  The Witch moves neither too quickly nor with too much old-timey stateliness, using its score to drive its emotional tenor, and dedicates itself in really admirable ways to using only onscreen light (or what looks like only onscreen light), capturing both the dire gray of the New England daytime and the unfathomable blackness of a pre-industrial night that can be but weakly pushed away by the flicker of candlelight.  Basically, The Witch is positively riveting—and not a little unnerving—even when nothing is actually happening; although something of interest is typically happening, which goes back to what I was saying about it being, happily, an essentially populist enterprise.

And for this, we can thank the two aspects of The Witch that are rather unambiguously the very best things about it: Eggers' script, specifically its dialogue, which according to a title card on the film itself draws from actual New England myth, and which is written in simulacrum of 17th century English; and the performances, which chew heartily on that 17th century dialect and 17th century attitude, not merely without any noticeable missteps—although that's something just in itself when dealing with a cast that is so predominantly young!—but go beyond simple recitation of the dialogue in order to deliver a host of fully-realized characters from it.  (Okay, okay, fine: while I personally enjoyed Harvey Scrimshaw's unquestionable commitment to the bit, you could reasonably hold that the young actor oversells his big scene, an explosive moment of religious ecstasy—"overselling" being somewhere on the spectrum between "a little bit" and "Jesus, there's not any scenery left, kid," depending upon your tastes.)

Still, despite their primitive religion and stupid savagery, I wound up liking the bulk of Thomasin's clan—or at least sympathizing with them—and even her dad, vilely patriarchal as he is in his basic construction, is no cartoon.  And while her mom is not exactly pleasant (the film turns principally upon her increasing contempt for Thomasin) it's made clear that when she lashes out, it's the natural if unfocused reaction to living in such squalor.  (Incidentally, Robert Eggers made his bones as a production designer before turning to directing his own features, and it shows, if in a deceptively minimalist way.)  The twins Jonas and Mercy, I should probably point out, are more annoying than they are creepy; but to Eggers' credit, he realizes that they're shrill little dipshits, and uses them judiciously.  (Indeed, they actually wind up driving one of The Witch's most unexpected elements, its wry but noticeable sense of humor.)

In part what we have here really is a straight-up literal haunting movie, albeit one transported back in time to four hundred years ago.  But it is also a fascinating, even literary, allegory: and this is how The Witch avoids the awful foundational problem that so many other witch-centric films run headlong into—namely, if you state as the premise of your film that all those Salem-era witchcraft stories are real, then you're already treading on dangerous ground, a ground full of murdered corpses who were hanged from the neck until dead by a particularly evil branch of Christianity.

However, by setting its tale in the same milieu, by infusing these characters with the same religious terrors that preyed upon their contemporaries' benighted minds, and by putting poor Thomasin between the two deeply unpalatable choices life has given her, The Witch deftly outmaneuvers the pitfalls inherent to such films as The Conjuring (which I might remind my readers is not just not very good, even on its merits, but is also honestly offensive).  There's a lot that can be unpacked from The Witch.  Its metaphors, fittingly, tend to exist on the margins: my favorite, I think, is the use of a silver cup that William steals from his wife to sell for some necessary, but quintessentially masculine hunting equipment (so you can see what I mean by The Witch being "literary"); this foreshadows the more concrete oppression Thomasin faces when her parents discuss how best to sell her into domestic servitude—which translates, I suspect, into outright sexual slavery.

Thomasin is asked, late in the film, "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?"  It is not a choice most in her time would get to make—man or woman, for that matter—but in this world, riddled through with a real devil and an apparently absent God, it might well be a temptation all too strong to resist.

Score:  8/10


  1. I slag Thor, you chide The Babadook. It looks like we're even.

    I'd be curious to hear more about you distaste for The Conjuring. I haven't seen it since it came out, and I have learned a lot about film and social theory since then. Where do you bad feelings stem from?

    1. The reference to the Salem witch trials as really real is the bigger part of it. It's like if they remade Fruitvale Station four hundred years from now, and in the retelling Oscar Grant was actually armed. Or [insert even more gauche Holocaust analogy here]. I know it's a little too late to say "too soon," but it's so troubling that even if it is centuries later, we're willing to spit on those folks' graves for entertainment. Do your witch movies, by all means! Just leave Salem and actual history out of it.

      The other part is that it's not really very scary, partly because it's so tiresomely generic (I know I have a schizophrenic relationship with genre, and sometimes things are "too generic," and sometimes "not generic enough," or, as with Goosebumps, "generic is awesome!"). But hey, a concrete example: we were talking Sinister earlier, and that's pretty generic, I suppose, but it's generic and it's mean. On top of that, it had a fair number of new ideas, and its formal elements are all there, too. The Conjuring practically feels like it was made by algorithm, even down to the direction and staging.

      Finally, it cops out at the end. I mean, it tracks Poltergeist pretty hard in a lot of ways, and you know I love Poltergeist, but Poltergeist is more frightening and Poltergeist ends with the house imploding. The Conjuring ends with some unconvincing makeup.

      It's okay, even kinda good (it has Patrick Wilson in it, doesn't it?), but it was nowhere close the great thing everyone said it was. I think THE NEW FACE OF HORROR era of critical hyperbole might, in fact, have begun with it.

    2. Oh, and P.S., if it looked like I was slagging The Babadook, that's me getting a little carried away. I really liked that one, and short of The Witch, it's definitely the second best of the Critically-Feted Art-Horror crop.

    3. Fair enough! Honestly, I don't even remember the Salem element, there were so many different genre elements crammed into that movie.

      I certainly enjoyed The Conjuring more than you, at least as an atmosphere piece, though I one hundred percent agree that it feels just like a bunch of horror tropes tossed in a blender and gets way more credit than it deserves.

  2. I'll say this for The Conjuring: Ryan Gosling's band's song was totally boss.