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Front Page - Friday, February 26, 2016

‘The Witch’ casts a wicked spell

The Critic's Corner movie review

David Laprad

This movie made me afraid of birds, goats, rabbits, little kids, and old ladies. - Reddit user

It had been a few hours since I’d seen “The Witch” during a late night showing. I was tired, and usually would have fallen asleep by that point, but as I lay in my bed, I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. I wasn’t scared, like the time I saw “The Exorcist” at midnight and then returned to an empty house. Rather, I felt off kilter and slightly disturbed. It was as though the film had planted a beetle inside my skull, and the insect was scraping against bone to get out.

The following day, as I described the film to someone, I told them to picture a movie in which the image is tilted just enough that something seems off. “The Witch” has an unnatural sensibility that’s hard to pin down.

It was also very thoughtfully made.

The setting is New England, circa the early 17th century. A family has been banished from their settlement, presumably due to the father’s religious differences with the town’s officials. They find a plot of land along the edge of a forest and stake their claim. We then see them months later, after they’ve raised a small plantation out of the earth. All would be well were it not for a certain someone – or something – in the forest.

When the family’s newborn literally disappears one day while the oldest daughter, Thomasin, is watching it, the ties that bind this family together begin to weaken. In time, they break, with devastating results.

Perhaps my description of the film has set up certain expectations in your mind. You’re picturing someone walking through the forest at night, and an animal jumping out to frighten them, or a special effects-laden climax. Modern horror films have conditioned you to anticipate these things. To appreciate “The Witch,” you must uncondition yourself first.

Instead of adopting the amusement park mentality of most modern scary movies, “The Witch” is more akin to a slowly boiling caldron of tar. To put it in less hackneyed terms, it’s a clever exercise in restraint. There are no jump scares or quick edits. Rather, first-time director Robert Eggers uses long takes, slow pans, and the oppressive darkness of night to build tension. Also, instead of jolting viewers with sudden, loud noises, he uses silence to build apprehension, and then slowly turns up the volume on a very disquieting soundtrack. The score for “The Witch” consists mostly of discordant voices and dissonant violins, similar to the music that accompanies the discovery of the sentinels in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Even the actors’ performances are carefully measured, and avoid going down well-worn paths. I thought the father, William, would devolve into the archetypal religious fanatic, but he never does. Rather, Eggers and actor Ralph Ineson create a man of deep faith who wants only to honor God and take care of his family. His good character makes his fate a tragedy.

The cinematography is also noteworthy. Eggers paints the film in drab grays and browns, visually suggesting the monotonous, lackluster nature of the family’s existence. When the color red finally appears during a key scene in the woods, my eyes were immediately drawn to it, and the dramatic nature of that moment helped me to better understand the allure of sin. This is movie making at a rare level of intelligence.

Perhaps the film’s greatest moment of restraint comes near the end, during a scene in which Eggers shows a single character facing the camera and speaking to something off-screen. (That “something” would scare every backslidden Christian soul back to church on Sunday.) Instead of showing who, or what, that person was seeing, Eggers only allows us to hear its voice. This was far creepier than anything a digital artist could have conjured in a computer. I like when a movie trusts me to use my imagination.

All of this is not to suggest “The Witch” is without thrills. When things started to unravel, I leaned forward in my seat and never sank back into its cushions until the movie faded to black. Without overselling what happens, there are some very unsettling moments in “The Witch” –  moments that made the audience with which I saw the film gasp.

If there’s a tear in this otherwise perfectly sewn garment, it would be that Eggers doesn’t connect the dots on some of the character progressions in the film. For example, I don’t understand how Thomasin reaches a major turning point for her character. Other than that, “The Witch” is seamless.

I’ll offer one caveat as a way of wrapping up this review. Most film critics have adored this movie; most viewers have not. I believe the disparity has to do with audiences expecting the typical rollercoaster ride, but getting a small, quiet, slowly simmering horror film instead. Also, the ending, while satisfying, goes against the grain of what most viewers look forward to. If you see it, leave your baggage at the door, and let the film tell its story.

Also, be ready for the long, sleepless night that will follow.

Four stars out of four. Rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity.

David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.