The Witch (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21Feb/160

The Witch (2016)

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William and his family have been rejected by their brethren for the way they express their Christian faith.  The sentence is banishment.  Soon after they find a new home the family suffers one tragedy after another, and begin to wonder if their misfortune is at the hands of a malevolent witch.  Robert Eggers writes and directs The Witch, and stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Harvey Scrimshaw.

Deary me in the darkAmericans have enshrined their founders in a seemingly impenetrable armor of myth.  John Adams' last words, "Thomas Jefferson still survives," entered American apocrypha as a testament to the struggle of the American Revolution.  The image of George Washington standing proud on a small ship as he crosses the Delaware River persists as another holy moment in American history.  What interests me in the case of that famous painting are not the bright reproductions but the ones where the shadows creep in on the edges and the seas look more turbulent.  America was not founded on brilliance and bravery, but from those who rejected England and sought to find their way in the colonies.

The Witch's appropriate subtitle is "A New England Folktale."  It matters not if the events of Robert Eggers' debut feature are true or not.  What they do is capture the essence of the other side of Americas origins.  Eggers focuses on the superstitions, hopes, and actions of those who rejected the constraints of England to practice their faith in the new world, then were further rejected by their fellow outcasts.  The protagonists of The Witch are the fringe of the fringe, and in their devotion to a particular religious ideal we see the seeds of the far right religious fanatics who still rebel against the government while calling for a return to a simpler time of faith.

Ritual which cannot adapt to the reality of a new world will only bring despair.

Ritual, no matter how well-meaning, which cannot adapt to the reality of a new world will only bring despair.

What Eggers understands, and painfully recreates throughout The Witch, is this simpler time never existed.  When America was still an extension of England it was rife with interpersonal conflicts about which religion and what form of governance the colonies should assume.  The Witch is as much a folk tale as it is a historical document.  It asks us to consider the stories which informed the beginning of our country that don't get placement on our currency or trotted out when our political heads ask we return to our founders values.  Eggers creates a document of our holy sins, born from religious fervor, and planting the seeds of our inevitable destruction.

Eggers, working with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, creates a visual style which makes us feel we are peering into this barely remembered history.  The darker view of Washington's journey across the Delaware informs the color scheme, frequently appearing black and white with the strongest colors appearing only when the characters are tempted to do wrong.  Blaschke's use of chiaroscuro is particularly striking, as the camera always seems to be on the move as a still photograph brought to life.  If the story of our sins is older than American, then it is fitting that The Witch not appear like the America we sing about, but the America festering in the backs of our minds and tucked away in our museums.

The Witch embraces a bit of magical plotting in service of bringing the dark myth to life.  A house and bit of farm land seem willed into being the moment William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) arrive at their new patch of land.  It's the fringe elements of our society who always feel they are at the border of some evil which can only be repelled by their values.  Despite having some means of technology and ability to fend for themselves they never recognize the darkness dwelling within their moral system.  The home springs up from the abyss as a comforting lie, that they might be able to repel the wilderness with their ideals.

The wilderness which seeks to tempt and destroy the family is as much a character in The Witch as William's family.  It is an omnipresent threat and Eggers never frames the family as though they stand a chance of overcoming nature.  They are always filmed small, almost insignificant and, in a shot which suggests the opening of Ingmar Bergman's Through A Glass Darkly, we watch as the family and their wagon become just another bit of foliage.  The Witch is at its most terrifying when the foliage seems to come after the family, with the most nauseating moment as Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) crawls through bramble and bushes with no way we, or he, can find what direction is "right".  I swear the edges of the frame kept moving closer to Caleb as he struggled but it was just a trick of the chiaroscuro and maze of bramble.

The nearly black and white photography and light to heavy use of chiaroscuro gives The Witch the feeling of a long-neglected historical document coming to life.

The nearly black and white photography and light to heavy use of chiaroscuro gives The Witch the feeling of a long-neglected historical document coming to life.

My mention of Through A Glass Darkly also factors in with the performances which contain strong hints of incest.  Anya Taylor-Joy's work as Thomason is not unlike Harriet Andersson's, having to deal with her own demons as she tries to ignore Caleb's lust for her.  The devil was already in William's theology, and by working harder in the name of the Lord he led his family to indulge in a world he did not prepare them for.  Scrimshaw's performance is the most terrifying in this regard.  As he contracts a terrible illness he twists and contorts his body like one of the brambles, and screams out in ecstatic delight in a sort of queer embrace of Christ's beauty.

It's in that terrifyingly sensual scream for Christ before death that shows how the folklore of America built fears of a non-heteronormative existence.  Caleb screams for Jesus in an almost sexual way, William fears a black man will ensnare Thomasin and lead her to sinful pleasure, all while Katherine embraces material possessions as a reminder of "the good old days".  Those days never existed and our continued delusion that they ever did continues to lead families into righteous self-destruction.  Whether we embrace "the darkness" and come to some measure of peace remains to be seen, but as The Witch shows we will build the myths of tomorrow on the deluded corpses of those who continue to think their way is the only way.

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Tail - The WitchThe Witch (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Robert Eggers.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Harveey Scrimshaw.

Posted by Andrew

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