Movie Review - The Witch

So much about this film is about religion and faith. Whether writer-director Robert Eggers is condemning faith or using the horror genre as a way of embracing it via reverse-psychology is something I can't tell. On the surface, it seems to be the former. Eggers appears to be condemning it by condemning his characters, although that might not be proof. A trope or convention of the horror genre is to condemn or essentially kill one's characters. Whether it's The Thing (1982) or Scream (1996), an invasive and mysterious force enters and turns everything into chaos and fear, leaving death and destruction in its wake. This film is basically no different, but the problem is that it's not as scary or packs as much thrills as the aforementioned movies. It possesses some interesting drama, which by itself, if developed further, could have been very thrilling, but the actual supernatural elements foul it up.

It's a similar complaint I had with another recent, critically-acclaimed, horror film, The Babadook. I felt like the film would have been better without the final scene, which reveals the supernatural elements to be literally true, or else the titular character is revealed to be a real thing. The same feeling is here. It would have been better to have the so-called witch not be a real thing, as revealed in Eggers' final scene.

It's not that I'm against supernatural elements in movies, but there is a tendency for films to walk the line and play with the question of whether the supernatural is real or not. Ambiguity or confusion can be interesting, but at this point it also is hackneyed. There are horror films that put the supernatural up front like zombie films, vampire films and other monster movies, and those films end up being more effective on sheer visceral levels.

This film is set during the 1600's and the time of the Salem witch trials, the mid-Colonial days. Eggers of course plays off the time period and the pre-Industrial and agrarian difficulties to craft his Puritanical nightmare. Absent the supernatural, Eggers' tale could have been a very compelling story of survival, as the whole thing centers on a family of seven forced to leave a settlement or plantation town in New England and live out in the wilderness where they struggle to maintain food.

Eggers then pivots and wants to make his film a version of The Crucible. Yet, that might be only a superficial observation because his goal clearly isn't the same or it's unsure by the end what his goal is. Arthur Miller knew witchcraft wasn't real but people in the 1600's had strong beliefs that witches were an actual thing, so Miller was in a way satirizing people's fear of something that wasn't real, as an allegory for McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist of Miller's time in the 1950's. Eggers, however,  reveals that witchcraft is real, so he's not satirizing or critiquing irrationality or prejudice.

If Eggers is a person of faith, his ending suggests a cynicism that devotion and trust in God are ineffectual or aren't enough. If anything, too much might be harmful, unless this whole thing is just a geographical problem. The family and its farm might be too close to a witch's den, much like the family in Poltergeist (1982) lived too close, if on top of sacred, burial ground. The witch comes after the family, much like the evil spirits came after the family in Poltergeist. The only difference is that I could ascribe motive to the spirits. I knew why they were doing what they were doing. I struggled to ascribe one to this witch.

Put simply, if there is a witch, it's not made clear what her powers are, what the limits are or even what her aims are. Are her aims revenge or recruitment? Is it sheer Satanism where logic is thrown out for simple and random malevolence? If so, simple and random malevolence is boring.

There are very provocative ideas and images that Eggers invokes. The sexual awakening or titillation of a prepubescent boy, played by Harvey Scrimshaw, as well as the murder of an innocent baby, which are all shocking, but they're isolated. Eggers throws on screen a shocking image, but he doesn't go anywhere or anywhere further with these shocks.

In a film that's supposedly about womanhood or centered on a female character, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the best performance is the prepubescent boy. Scrimshaw has a scene that's almost reminiscent of The Exorcist (1973). His possession and expulsion of what could be a demonic spirit are incredible to watch, as Eggers keeps his camera on him for a long, continuous take where Scrimshaw delivers a Biblical monologue and physical spasms and expectoration that are masterful.

It's an amazing moment that's more compelling than any of the brief moments of special effects. In a movie full of adults giving good performances, the boy steals the movie. Yet, it's an isolated moment lost in a film that doesn't utilize its supernatural elements to full potential.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 32 mins.


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