Thursday, February 18, 2016

Evil in the woods of New England

The Witch either is a study of madness bred by isolation or a tale of the supernatural. It's grim, strange and sometimes too literal.

A New England-based horror movie set during the 17th Century, The Witch proves somber slice of horror that -- up to this point -- has garnered a significant amount of critical attention. Fair to say, the movie's first-time director, Robert Eggers, creates a physical environment that brims with stark, period-appropriate authenticity.

Eggers also serves up plenty of chilled atmosphere, creating a world bathed in light so severely grey it seems insufficient even to coax crops from the ground.

Taken from historical records of early settlers, the film's dialogue is delivered in accents that sometimes border on the incomprehensible and may sound a laughably stilted to "thine" ears. It did to mine.

For all its eeriness, Eggers' movie grapples with something real, the perils of isolation. The story begins with a super-religious family withdrawing from the main settler community because of religious differences. Are we to conclude that self-imposed banishment inevitably leads to tragedy and madness?

There's promise in such a premise, and it gives Eggers the opportunity to explore what happens when a family -- complete with resentments, fervid beliefs, budding sexual appetites and lots of physical hardship -- tries to put down roots in an isolated clearing surrounded by mysterious woods.

Eggers wisely opts to keep his imagery severe, and his cast certainly can't be faulted.

Ralph Ineson portrays the increasingly troubled father of this lonely brood, and Kate Dickie plays his suffering wife. As a couple, they make American Gothic look cheerful by comparison.

The principal role among the family's children goes to Anya Taylor Joy, who plays Thomasin, a teenager who's guilt-ridden because her infant brother disappeared while she was playing peek-a-boo with the boy.

Of course, we wait for more shoes to fall?

Will brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who can't help sneaking a look at his older sister's emerging bodice, vanish? And what about the twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson)? Are they doomed, as well?

Before it's done, The Witch has carted out at least one familiar symbol. A black goat represents Satan, and we also see a witch, a naked crone who seems indistinguishable from the forest's rot.

All of this takes place during a time when people worried about salvation the way we worry about Supreme Court nominations. God and the devil seemed to be equally vivid presences in Puritanical lives -- except, of course, for the fact that God remained invisible.

At times, I found the movie a bit ridiculous, and Egger can't resist dealing out a bit of graphic bloodshed, although I doubt it's enough to satisfy Saw-happy audiences.

Meticulously crafted, The Witch creates plenty of convincing eeriness, but yields to an evil temptation -- the literalism that forces Eggers to create images that ultimately undermine the film's stabs at ambiguity. Eggers' spectral crescendo of an ending either will strike you as eerie or risible.

I'm more in the latter camp, and by its ending, I felt The Witch had come close to shattering its macabre spell with Grand-Guignol theatrics the filmmakers weren't able to resist.

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