Thursday, January 29, 2015

Sundance ’15: The Witch

If you want to psychoanalyze a culture, look at the horror movies it produces, because that will show you what really scares them. Consider this the exception that proves the rule. In writer-director Robert Eggers’ period chiller, early 1600s Puritan New Englanders feared the Devil could have designs on their souls. Worse still, they might be tempted to deal it away. These are not baseless anxieties in Eggers’ The Witch, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Thanks to their father’s zealous pride, Thomasin’s family has been expelled from their Puritan community to an isolated hardscrabble farm, where they must fend for themselves entirely. It has not been going well. Their crop failure is bad news in strictly economic and sustenance terms, but it is even more ominous as a sign or portent. Poor teenage Thomasin becomes the family scapegoat after her infant brother uncannily vanishes while she is minding him. Her father is relatively forgiving, but her mother is witheringly judgmental.

Of course, the grieving parents are understandably disturbed, since they believe their unbaptized baby is now surely damned. Unfortunately, Thomasin’s bratty young sister and (now) youngest brother mischievously or perhaps maliciously seem to do everything possible to cast supernatural suspicion on Thomasin, yet they seem to be the ones who are inexplicably drawn to the family goat, Black Phillip.

Who would have thought a moody, suggestive period horror film would be the hot ticket at Sundance, but it clearly pays to have a p&i screening on the first full day of the festival. Regardless, it is an unusually effective and historically accurate film. Those are wooden trunnels holding the farmhouse together, not nails. Throughout the film, you can feel a palpable sense of physical and spiritual isolation that malevolent powers may or may not be exploiting. There is indeed a fair degree of ambiguity in The Witch, but it is still safe to say evil is afoot.

The cast also looks and sounds perfectly in keeping with the times. There is no hamming it up or hinting at contemporary ironies. As Thomasin, Anya Taylor-Joy comes across as a genuinely tormented soul, while Ralph Ineson and his rich, commanding voice seem to carry the historical weight of Puritanism and all its collected hypocrisies. These are haunted people in more ways than one.

In the movies, good things rarely happen in the deep, dark woods. The Witch is no exception. It is a visually arresting film, sensitively lensed by Jarin Blaschke with a suitably Puritanical, washed-out color palette, but in a way that pulls viewers into the world and intensifies the mounting dread. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of high end genre films, The Witch screens again today (1/29) and Saturday (1/31) in Park City and tomorrow (1/30) in Salt Lake, as a U.S. Dramatic Competition title at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.