The Witch ★★★½

Robert Eggers' "The Witch," despite its reputation to the contrary, is no horror film; or, perhaps, calling it a horror film simply sells the film short by setting up expectations that were never meant to be realized. It may ooze with a palpable dread and a vice-grip sense of foreboding that slithers throughout the piece, but the conventions that would make the film a true piece of horror unfold as unimportant after thoughts. These touches, which shall not be revealed here, take away from the inherent power of Eggers' film as work of period drama. It is that drama and how Eggers and company build something steeped in centuries-old sights and sounds that give the film its signature. These are the things that make "The Witch" an engaging experience.

Taking place in the 17th century, "The Witch" follows a family banished to the American wild when an undisclosed infraction makes its members outcasts. At the edge of a dark wood, the family is burdened with tragedy, failed crops, and distrust. The piousness of the family's members leads to supernaturally based suspicions, and those suspicions may eventually lead to the group's destruction.

The tale feels familiar and asks it audience to empathize with the plight of the family. Eggers adds notes of violence, mystery, and, perhaps, the supernatural to the story, but the narrative is fueled by the family's disintegration, its lack of success, and its crushing tragedies. That narrative is undercut by the reasons for them that may sit outside the family's control. Chills, supernaturally based or otherwise, are secondary to the tension and dread that build as the film's players begin to doubt their counterparts and love unravels.

The film is rich in period detail. Its costumes and landscapes feel like museum pieces given life in contemporary presentation. There is texture to everything that the camera sees and a robust practicality to clothing, props, and settings. Shots are composed out of light, wood, and shadow; they are artful and practical, communicating emotion and tone.

The words spoken by the film's characters drive the drama's attention to era minutia. Spoken passages are exhaled with 17th century ferocity and poetry. They are layered with devotion, fear, and hope. They are a fully alive representation of something long dead.

An audience's interpretation of the true genre of "The Witch" may be in the eye of the beholder, but, aside from its trappings, whether those trappings be meaningful or meaningless, the film stands as in interesting piece of filmic period fiction. Slow rolling yet impassioned, the drama drips with era-related richness yet keeps its audience at arm's length. It is an occasionally chilling, fully realized, and distinctive dramatic work.

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