Thursday, November 17, 2016

Drive By Reviews: THE WITCH

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY/TL;DR: Apparently I alone among reviewers found Mark Korven’s soundtrack loud and annoying. Fortunately, a well-established sense of impending doom and fine acting by the cast salvage writer/director Robert Eggers’ The Witch: A New England Folktale as a watchable film. If you enjoyed watching those three college students lose their minds over the course of The Blair Witch Project, you shouldn’t get too bored as the Thing in the Woods slowly exerts its cruelty on this exiled and isolated family in 1630 New England. Overall, I enjoyed it, but it was an extremely qualified enjoyment, hence the long review.

Robert Eggers’ The Witch reminded me a lot of The Blair Witch Project, which is an issue that should be dealt with immediately, as the latter film elicits strong feelings on either side. Although The Witch is a straightforward narrative showing the viewer many things the film’s characters do not see, as opposed to the found-footage pastiche of The Blair Witch Project, both films evoke a deliciously oppressive sense of isolation and dread. 

When the colonial New England family is banished from “the plantation” as it’s referred to at times throughout The Witch, we watch from the family’s point of view as they ride away. Settlers and even the Indians of the village regard them briefly and turn away to their business, and it’s right there that the viewer realizes the characters are riding away to a lonely execution. It’s the same feeling one has watching The Blair Witch Project’s trio of college students leave their car. You look at the car in that shot, and know that’s the last you, or the future human sacrifices entering the Dire Woods, are ever going to see of it. 
You can’t see the Evil for the trees. Good thing this will all be strip malls and fast food joints one day.

In both films there is an Unseen Evil in the Dire Woods that plays with its hapless victims before going in for the final kill. The difference between the films becomes more acute in the details, though. In The Blair Witch Project, you see and hear the reactions of the terrified students, but it’s difficult to make out the exact noises in the woods that are unnerving them. 

In The Witch, an infant disappears from a blanket in an instant in the course of a game of peek-a-boo with his angel-faced sister. It would be enough to drive anyone insane for the sheer unreality of it. Yet the frantic girl looks to the woods as if they indeed did make an infant vanish. A wolf ends up taking the blame, the 17th century New England equivalent of “a dingo ate the baby.” But the girl—and everyone else—comes to suspect dear Thomasin of something.
The director and cinematographer like this angel face so much it fills the screen in the film’s opening shot (this isn’t it), in case you don’t get later that she’s going to be a focal point.

The family set against one another is another dominating sub-trope of the fatal isolation of our victims that The Witch shares with The Blair Witch Project. In this movie, though, the director is not content to leave his audience wondering what is going on in those woods. 

Cue the loud and annoying “Are you scared yet?” music, and we’re seeing flashes of an infant wriggling naked by flickering firelight. The flat of a blade is pressed against his chest. We see the naked—sagging and unattractive, alas—buttocks of a woman thrusting suggestively in the dark, but given the blood that’s filling the container by her side, she’s into something as good as sex for her.

This scene bothered me, and for all the wrong reasons. Why did we need to see this? That the baby vanished within mere seconds in a game of peek-a-boo, far from the line of the woods or any animals, with no evidence of its abduction beyond the empty blanket, should have sufficed to inform the viewer that a supernatural agency is at work. As it is, we know the baby has met a sticky end, and this viewer, for one, was grateful the writer/director had enough restraint to spare us the poor child’s cry, let alone the sight of its dismemberment.

One would think they would blame Indians in the woods over a wolf for the abduction of the baby. However politically incorrect it is to ascribe any negative tendencies whatsoever to pet demographic groups, these things did happen—and if, indeed, as stated on a title card at the beginning of the film, that the very dialogue was taken from contemporary writings—writer/director Robert Eggers had to know this. 

As it happens, Indians do not exist to so much as hunt or travel through this blue-gray corner of New England in 1630. It might have added a more sinister note if someone had brought that up, e.g., “Is it not strange that even the savages avoid these accursed woods?” As the patriarch of a family exiled to the wilderness, I would be very interested in why this common 1600s problem isn’t a problem where I am. Is it the lack of game? So what is keeping the game out of these perfectly good woods?
Instead of asking existential questions about his infant brother’s chances of going to heaven since he died unbaptized, how about, “Father, of all the places we may have settled, why this patch of perpetual blue-gray gloom where nothing can possibly grow?”

This is a factor in the family’s rapidly deteriorating circumstances. A blight has taken their crop and they will not have food to last them the winter. A hunting trip turns up nothing but a revelation that the family patriarch has taken and sold one of his wife’s heirloom possessions for—I wasn’t quite sure. All we’re left with is that the father is morally compromised, and we’re under the impression this somehow has made him and his family vulnerable to some form of dark retribution.

For all that got so needlessly spelled out in the humping hag buttocks/knife on the baby scene, there’s much more that’s needlessly murky. The business with the silver cup the father sold is the one that’s most annoying, because the mother brings it up time and again, accusing her children of taking it. The father, to his credit, comes to their defense. (It’s a big plus in this film that the father is not an evil hardass as one might expect of religious family patriarchs.) There are other matters, however.

The murkiest for me was the time frame. How long was this family in this eternally blue-gray clearing outside of the woods before the evil in there decided to take an interest? We see the family tried and exiled at the beginning, then the next thing we see they not only have a house, but a barn, and corrals for livestock. How long did that all take to build? And where did they get livestock, when all they’d left with was the clothes on their backs? 

For that matter, what were they doing with an oversized billy goat named Black Phillip? I didn’t see any female goats he would be mated with. When did the goat start talking to the twins? There is a set of younger twins, a girl and a boy, who taunt Thomasin for being the witch who sacrificed their unbaptized brother. Black Phillip supposedly told them all about it. What on earth are they doing with this clearly Satanic creature?

The twins seem to know something is up, which alarms Thomasin, as she’s not sure. Meanwhile, the pubescent middle brother, Caleb, whom we’ve already caught making furtive glances at his angel-faced sister’s chest, is on some kind of quest to prove himself. Separated from Thomasin in the woods, he finds himself before a house where a seductive brunette comes out to meet him. You know once she starts kissing the innocent Caleb that an arm is going to come around, and it isn’t going to be an arm, but something more like a claw. (It is!)

Caleb returns home naked in the rain and...I don’t want to give away the whole movie. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed The Witch for precisely the same reason as The Blair Witch Project. It isn’t the supernatural element that provides the terror so much as isolation and the fragility of the human mind under stress. Some people find this process boring. For me, it’s the only thing that makes the movie watchable.

The CinemaSins YouTube channel covers everything that bothered me about the film, from the murky dialogue to the murky cinematography, to the fact that this family, for their own supernatural ability to get an entire compound erected in no time flat, haven’t gotten a handle on hunting and fishing. For those who have already seen The Witch, or those who don’t care about spoilers—I have the same issues with The Witch’s ending as the CinemaSins guy—this is a good, comprehensive watch.
“What happened in this barn? Why did the witch kill all the animals? How? What happened to the twins? How did I sleep through all of this? I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS, and a sick feeling the writer doesn’t have a good answer for any of them. He’s just making it up as he goes along by this point.”

If you’re bored and like watching doomed people meet their ends, you’ll enjoy this. But this is one of those films that falls apart the more time you have to think about it. For all the rookie sloppiness of the story and its execution, The Witch is far from a classic. It is, however, a decent diversion.