Friday, February 19, 2016

The Witch: Barely casts a spell

The Witch (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity

By Derrick Bang

Filmmaker Robert Eggers’ modest little chiller is being hailed as 2016’s first “New Wave horror masterpiece,” akin to last year’s It Follows.

Sadly, that’s high praise this film doesn’t deserve.

As Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) continues to suffer the guilt of having "lost" her baby
brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) tries to comfort her. But he does the job badly, in
part because of his own conflicted feelings about his older sister.
It also has been described as the unholy love child of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and The Blair Witch Project. That’s much closer to the truth, albeit with far more Bergman than Blair. Unlike that 1999 cinematic con job, which was a case of the emperor having no clothes whatsoever, The Witch does deliver a few lurid sequences while building to its nasty finale.

But Eggers is a much better director than writer. He definitely gets full marks for moody atmosphere and unsettling tension, and — assisted by production designer Craig Lathrop — quite cleverly stretches the $1 million budget to deliver impressive period authenticity.

But the plot is clumsy and random, with key details and motivation left undisclosed, and the characters are badly under-written. We’ve no idea why any of this is happening, or what these poor folks have done to deserve it (although there’s a suggestion that female puberty is the catch-all culprit).

More to the point, character behavior is deranged, and therefore impossible to take seriously. Much has been made of Eggers’ meticulous adherence to early 17th century New England dress, mannerisms and particularly speech; that’s well and good, but he rather overplays the religious zealotry, to the point of generating unintended laughter at all the wrong moments.

On top of which, even with the aforementioned third-act climax, Eggers’ pacing is languid to the point of tedium. Something obviously is wrong, when you can’t sustain interest for a brief 90 minutes.

In a word, The Witch is a yawn. Until the final 10 minutes or so.

The year is 1630, and Eggers opens his film during a tribunal taking place within a small New England colonial settlement. William (Ralph Ineson) and his family have been charged with something unspecified; it appears to be some sort of religious disagreement. Under threat of banishment by the church, William haughtily agrees to leave the Puritan settlement, relocating his wife and five children to a remote plot of land at the edge of an ominous forest.

A bit of time passes; we rejoin William and his clan after they have erected a home of wood, stone and thatch, and planted a crop of corn. Elder daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) helps her mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), watch the younger children: bratty twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and their infant brother. Eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), only slightly younger than Thomasin, spends his time helping their father.

On an otherwise ordinary day, Thomasin takes a morning stroll with the infant; they pause for a moment, and the girl plays peek-a-boo with her baby brother, much to the latter’s giggling delight. But then, during one split-second interval when Thomasin covers and then opens her eyes ... the baby is gone. Utterly vanished.

But not from our view. What happens next to this poor innocent babe is ghastly beyond description: thankfully, conveyed only by the briefest of tightly edited glimpses.

William and his family know none of this. Thomasin is horrified and chagrined, and can’t help feeling guilty; how could it have happened so quickly? But Katherine takes this loss much harder, and — again, for no discernable reason — blames her eldest daughter. Far more maliciously than seems reasonable.

Things subsequently take an unpleasant, Job-like turn. The crop fails; carefully placed animal traps get sprung, but remain empty; the family goats give blood, rather than milk. Mercy and Jonas become conspiratorial in the presence of the small herd’s lone black goat, dubbed Black Phillip; we get the impression that it’s talking to them, much the way Regan MacNeil so casually chatted with “Captain Howdy” during the early stages of The Exorcist.

Or maybe it’s just Mercy and Jonas being obnoxious, in order to taunt and annoy Thomasin.

Except that we already know that’s unlikely. Early reviews have praised Eggers for the “ambiguity” of his script — is there a witch, or not? — but that’s rubbish; we’ve seen what the deep-woods witch has done to the baby, and why.

The family’s ill fortune and downward spiral intensify, in the manner of standard “cabin in the woods” fright flicks; increased suspicion falls upon poor Thomasin. And then ...

Ah, yes. And then.

Eggers builds to a conclusion that may satisfy horror movie cliché, but it’s far from acceptable in terms of plot structure and character continuity.

I suppose The Witch can be viewed as a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious mania; it’s also possible to argue that William has brought this nasty calamity upon his family because of his unspecified hubris — referencing their initial banishment — or because, his God-fearing fealty notwithstanding, he tells minor lies when it suits his purposes.

Or maybe it’s because Caleb’s gaze lingers, one morning, on the only so slightly exposed swell of the sleeping Thomasin’s breast.

Whatever. If that’s all it takes to induce God’s wrath and fall under Satan’s spell, the Puritans never would have survived their first winter. Point being, this is one of those stories where evil is so all-powerful, that good never stands a chance ... and when the scales are that unbalanced, it’s hard to get emotionally involved.

These folks are doomed, end of story.

That said, Taylor-Joy is a compelling young actress, and she certainly holds our attention. Her Thomasin is dutiful and honorable, desperately loyal to her family — particularly to her father, and to Caleb — even as events conspire to render her an outcast. One climactic confrontation with William is painful for its intensity, the latter torn between suspicion and parental love.

Ineson is equally fine as the imperious William, who nonetheless is capable of gentleness. Even at William’s calmer moments, though, Ineson’s eyes convey a glimpse of the spiritual madness that we recognize from the likes of Jim Jones or David Koresh.

Scrimshaw also is memorable as the quiet Caleb, whose own budding maturity leads him to question some of his father’s blindly obedient religious fervor.

We never get a bead on Dickie’s Katherine; her behavior is too haphazard. Nor are young Grainger and Dawson persuasive as the insufferable twins, except when they don’t talk. Their silent terror, late in these events, is reasonably convincing; their overly earnest dialog, in great contrast, is contrived, badly delivered and unintentionally laughable.

Eggers also tries to generate horror from lingering close-ups on the aforementioned black goat — and a rabbit that begins to hang around the farm — with uneven results. If you wholly swallow this film’s disquieting mood, these creatures might seem menacing. If not ... said close-ups are merely silly.

Actually, Eggers’ tendency to hold on static images, and to bridge scenes with long moments of screen blackness, becomes quite tiresome. Mark Korven’s so-called soundtrack — little more than cacophonous noises and choral shrieks (supposedly suggested by 17th century psalm settings) — is shrill and obnoxious.

Eggers definitely has directorial chops, and in some ways has done a lot with very little. I’d love to see such talent attached to a better constructed script. Meanwhile, this feature debut leaves us with little more than an eye-rolling shrug.

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