Fantastic Fest 2015 Review – The Witch

A Fantastic Fest Review

The Witch – There’s an Evil in The Woods

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Canada, 2015
Special Screening, 90 min
Director – Robert Eggers

The Witch is a calculatedly slow burn. It’s setting is one of serenity, deep-wooded seclusion, of stark, eerie isolation. It takes place in the time of the pilgrims and folklore, of god, suspicion and lawlessness. This is how American life came to be.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie because few horror films with such an audacious setup have succeeded. There are none that come to mind, in fact. And yet with an unflinching confidence, first time film director/writer Robert Eggers takes us on an unsettling, terrifying journey into the deterioration of one family’s way of life. It is a bold, surprising, and dare I say, original, modern genre film.

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A family leaves their English settled community. Outspokenly fed up with the boorish and constrictive town politics, the father renounces their comfortable way of life in favor of creating their own. They are brave souls, pioneers of the individualistic way of life, braving the terrain long before the outer lands were settled. They create a home, they have a baby, raise a farm. Life is good on the outside. Then the infant mysteriously goes missing. Was it wolves who took him? Was Thomisan, the eldest sister, responsible? What settles into a sort of foreboding, pilgrim-style kitchen sink drama slowly unravels into an ice cold odyssey of horror.

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It took me a second to get into the vibe of The Witch. Not because of the slow burn, but because initially I didn’t feel at home with the characters. And perhaps that’s the point. They know each other, but their familiarity is stripped away once they’ve left the comforts of their town. I felt like a voyeur, a distant viewer of the clan. But once the character of Caleb returns home from a brief period of missing in the woods, the film sucked me into its void, trapping me, captivated, until the end. To quote Drew McWeeny’s HitFix review, “it feels like we’re watching something genuinely transgressive, something we should not be seeing.”

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Speaking of Caleb, his final descent is perhaps one of the most enthralling and unnerving performances I’ve witnessed in a very long time. In my opinion, the film hinges on this grueling scene. The young actor gives himself, body and soul, to his character’s plight, a performance that is well beyond his years. It’s astounding. The actor, Harvey Scrimshaw, deserves a place at the big kid’s table in Hollywood. Someone hire him for more complicated roles immediately. As the eldest, Thomisan, Anna Taylor-Joy is great to watch. While not a standout for me, she’s brings a level of thoughtful naivete to the role that is essential for her journey. The role of William, the family’s father and only adult male figurehead, is played by Ralph Ineson (yes, of the UK version of The Office). Here, he offers a very different aspect of his talent, delivering a brooding sense of sadness that carries the film.

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It was said at Fantastic Fest that Eggers directed this film with bold confidence, and I couldn’t agree more. There is an outrageous amount of courage that goes into making a film, let alone a horror film. The variables working against you are insurmountable. From producers to fan expectations, and all the shit in between, the business is likely a nerve-rattling one. With the creation of The Witch, and the cult and commercial status it will undoubtedly command, Eggers has solidified himself as one of THE new genre directors to watch. It makes complete sense that he’s been tapped to remake the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, arguably one of the greatest horror films ever made. If it must be remade, I can think of no one better to bring it new life.

While I love it, The Witch is not a horror film for everyone. It’s purposefully paced, well considered, and very intimate. But that is part of its power– the ominousness of the devil before you, mystifying you, wanting you, knowing that a fire in hell burns bright for your soul. When late in the movie the father, William, utters the line, “There’s evil in the wood,” all I could think was, “well, you sure as hell got that right.” It’s delightfully unsettling, and I can’t wait to experience it all again.

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