MIFF 2015: The Witch

Branded with the subtitle “A New England Folktale” and stated as being based upon actual journals and records from the 17th century, The Witch is the debut feature from Robert Eggers. It’s a slow burn of a fable, its camera lying nestled within an exiled family being torn apart by the cruel visitations of a witch that lives in the forest behind their farm.

Mainly focusing on the luminous eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her puritanical father William (Ralph Ineson), The Witch is mostly interested in the ways in which this supernatural presence shreds away at the family’s religious core, inducing paranoia and faithlessness.

Pre-dating the Salem witch trials, the most revealing thing about The Witch is the way in which it earnestly attempts to be a document rather than myth. The characters speak with an authentic, dense New England tongue and the photography is reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s work: starkly monochromatic, minimalist and yet highly designed.

It’s this quest for an “authentic experience” that is The Witch’s ultimate downfall, though, however striking and bewitching it may be. It suffers from The Dark Knight syndrome, a reduction of cinematic excess in an effort to portray some form of reality as authority. Unlike The Dark Knight, though, in attempting to present the period as faithfully as possible, The Witch fails to construct and explore a solid mythology, something essential to the kind of tale it wishes to tell.

The thing about fairytales, a source from which many horror films are drawn, is that beneath their frightening or escapist aesthetic lies a deep desire to grapple with some essential human truth or quandary. In pertaining to a strict code of “reality”, The Witch never fully mines the mythology that may lie within and therefore can only be seen as a visual or genre subversive experience.

Which is totally fine if that is the goal of the film, but with The Witch I couldn’t help but feel its yearning to be something more, not only elicited in its construction, but also in its desire to tear apart the spiritual core of the family within. Most of the time, though, their religious dilemma bears the unfortunate mark of caricature. Perhaps it has more to do with the blind faith of its characters, but rarely does it feel as though these figures are in the midst of a spiritual crisis. Rather, fear appears to be the driving force with their moments of beckoning for Christ, lacking in any true desperation.

Coupled with a less than convincing piousness is the sexual awakening of Thomasin, which the film flirts with and attempts to tie to the witch of the woods. Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) at one point appears bashfully smitten of his sister’s physical form, and at another, when he ventures out into the forest, he is lured to the witch’s den by her sultry advances.

Flirtation however usually leads to some form of intimacy (if it’s successful of course), and in this regard The Witch once again ends up going home alone. Eggers attempts to sell the sexuality of the film in its closing moments, but the end result is unearned, despite its visual splendour. It’s a series of undercooked ideas buried under a cloak of authenticity and aesthetics.

This isn’t to suggest that The Witch isn’t effective; despite a series of tedious sequences the film certainly uses mood and tone to its advantage. Its horror comes in pinpricks, small reveals and tension filled takes that certainly pay off in the scare department. And many of its images are shocking, there’s one of a breastfeeding crow that’s sure to upturn some stomachs.

If The Witch’s intentions were to be a simple supernatural horror film, then it might succeed in its endeavour, but I suspect that it aspires to be much more. Mythology is a powerful way of engaging with the world, spirituality and sexuality especially, but The Witch is more interested in accuracy than it is ascendancy. I’ll take Maleficent over The Witch any day, not because I prefer it, but because of the mythological possibilities it opens up for discussion. The Witch might appear to be the deeper experience, but in the end it casts a spell of closed-ended questioning above all else.

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