The Witch ★★★★

Hoop-Tober 2016 Entry #4

I like to think that, with the exception of the controversial ending (which I'll get to in a moment) THE WITCH is what would have happened if Stanley Kubrick turned BARRY LYNDON into a horror move. An incredibly assured debut from Robert Eggers, THE WITCH is filled with a palpable sense of place, terrific performances, and a sense of purpose and direction in a film that is equally open to interpretation.

Banished from their puritanical community in the New World, William leads his family into the wilderness to live and practice their Christianity according to their beliefs. Those beliefs are severely put to the test when their infant son Samuel is snatched out from under the watch of eldest daughter Thomasin by a witch - something Eggers leaves no doubt about, as we cut right to the witch and what she does with snatched children. From here the family, including devout wife Katherine, son Caleb, and twin siblings Mercy and Jonas slowly break down as their faith is challenged and eventually broken in the face of something that cannot be explained. Eggers adeptly shows the small cracks in each person's devoutness, and how those cracks all lead toward Thomasin, beautifully executed in performance by Anya Taylor-Joy. William sold a silver cup to buy traps with Katherine's knowledge, and later confesses after letting Thomasin take the blame. Katherine, grieving over the loss of her child, starts to resent the burgeoning adulthood of Thomasin when compared to her own life. Caleb, trying so hard to stay on a path can't help but steal glances at Thomasin's blouse as she washes clothes by the river. And the twins? Well, when they're not taunting anyone within earshot they're singing gleeful songs about the conversations they have with Black Philip, the sinister black goat they keep penned outside the house...

The film is a beautiful slow burn, gorgeously shot in natural light by Jared Blaschke, again echoing shades of Kubrick and BARRY LYNDON. Eggers also makes the sharp decision to film in 1.66.1 aspect ratio, allowing a more box-like framing that captures the woods, the house, and a surprise guest exquisitely in the frame. Performances across the board are phenomenal, but Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin is a treasure. There's a subtext running throughout about our conflicts with sin, desire, faith, and a strong undercurrent of how women are perceived that, while not necessary to enjoying the folktale elements of the film, serve to strengthen the backbone the story rest on.

One last comment about that folktale element, and the apparent dissatisfaction with the very overt ending. The majority of comments I've read from folks who didn't like the ending was that it took away from the ambiguity of whether or not it was all in their heads, or if Thomasin was the witch the whole time. This strikes me as folks being so conditioned to expect a "twist" ending that when they come across a "what you see is what you get:" scenario they're flummoxed. Eggers is very explicit in his intent right at the very beginning of the film: the subtitle of THE WITCH is "A New England Folktale". And while folktales can be taken to mean many things, the tale itself is taken at face value. Jack and the beanstalk is about taking chances on things (or maybe being wary of false advertising if you lean that way) but in the story itself there is no ambiguity: those are magic beans and there is a giant living atop a beanstalk in the clouds. So if we can take that, how much of a stretch to accept the evil magic in the woods, ultimately being the only refuge left for a young women who has lost everything else, including her faith in those things like God and family that seemingly abandon her at the end.