Friday, February 19, 2016

Movie Review: The Witch (2015)

Returning from my viewing of The Witch on an unseasonably warm and sunny day in February, it's still hard to shake the feelings with which the film left me. The unlikely horror period piece has been generating a lot of buzz ever since its festival debut, and has now been given a deserving wide release in theaters. You don't have to believe ALL the hype if you don't want to be disappointed, but I really hope that if you see this creepy flick, disappointment will be the last thing on your mind.

In 16th century England, a man and his family are excommunicated from their village for religious reasons. They settle on a small farm of their own in the middle of nowhere, next to a dense forest that is most assuredly hiding something evil. Witchcraft seems to be the main culprit when their infant son goes missing one day, and the mix of desperation and fear causes the family to slowly turn on one another as they suspect one of them may be the one in deals with the Devil.

As The Witch was just released today, I'll forgo my usual spoilers and find other ways to convince you to see this movie. The big name of the game here is dread. The Witch is consumed in this constant feeling of dread. Even in the simplest of scenes, I was completely on edge about what was going to happen next. An early scene involving the titular witch sets the audience up for how far the movie is willing to go, and those visuals stay with you as the story goes on, keeping that tension tight. Sometimes the movie delivers with a break in the tension, but sometimes it doesn't. You never know when something creepy is going to happen or what it might be, and that's what makes The Witch so compelling.

The movie is methodical with its direction, editing, and music to help build this tight atmosphere and keep it going throughout. It savors the use of long takes and holding on a particular shot to pull you into the scene, sometimes offering a crescendo of beautiful, but insanely eerie, music to accompany it. There were times when I was absolutely terrified, even though there wasn't really much happening on the screen. There is just enough information given to propel the story, but there is also a lot held back in The Witch. The insulated location doesn't allow for outside influences, except the belief system of the characters, which only goes downhill as their situation gets worse. Neither they or the audience knows who or what to believe. Adding to the family strife is their spotty food supply, and the possibility of having to send their children off to another family to survive.

This breakdown of the family unit also brings about much of the movie's suspense. The eldest daughter, Thomasin, is the main person targeted for being a witch, as she was with the baby Samuel when he disappeared. Mother Katherine seems to put the blame all on her, but she gets sympathy from her younger brother Caleb and father William - though that doesn't last long. Jonas and Mercy are the young twins who are both adorable and quite creepy at the same time (kids always are). This cast of unknowns excels in each of their roles - they all get a chance to shine and do so brilliantly. And though the language of the time period may make some lines difficult to understand at times (I have developed somewhat of a reliance on subtitles for all films, so I definitely missed them here), it doesn't put any kind of burden on the story. You still get it, so don't worry about that.

If The Witch succeeds at what it's trying to do, there will be some scenes that will shock you, or at least thoroughly freak you out, but it is not all that violent or gory. It is really just intense, and it gets there solely through the atmosphere. Even seemingly innocuous animals like bunnies and goats are made terrifying from the way the movie is shot, and the amazing score only intensifies this all the more. For a truly moody film that expertly ratchets up the tension in almost every scene, see The Witch.