As far as horror movies go, this one stands out. The atmosphere was simple, but excellent. The acting was spot on, even from the younger actors, who surprised me with how flawlessly they pulled of the four hundred year old largely-accurate dialogue and accent.
Speaking of accents and dialogue, I'm baffled that people deduct credit because of it. I'll happily admit that there was a spot here or two where it was hard to follow, especially early on before you're used to it and they're talking reasonably fast. Rather than bothering me, it made me like it even more.
This isn't a film that relies heavily at all on jump-scares, though a few exist. It's more about a disturbing creepiness that builds up as the movie progresses, and messes with you in a unique way. Unless you're looking for a fast-paced jump-scare type movie, I highly recommend it.
A study in startling minimalism, this stripped-down story, (The dialog of which was In part, taken from actual period transcripts, myths and accounts of witchcraft through the ages) is part of an apparently growing old-school revival with some cinematic roots in Ingmar Bergman's films, in drama and horror films, that let viewers process the happenings without much explanation, guidance, or manipulation via dialog, effects, or story line. Call it trusting the audience.
Where blockbusters, would narrate every second, and basically have a tendency to the hold the hand of the viewer, Director Eggers lets you go, into a forest of darkly perfect cinematography, supported, by a highly tense and un-beautiful soundtrack, and introduces you to a family that has an inverted dynamic. A weak but stoic father, oracular children, and beautiful young girl coming of age, complete with a shrewish wife, (Kate Dickie, from Game of Thrones) including some very tight ensemble acting, and no hope in site, this film is like a drink of bitters and soda after having eaten cotton candy all day long.
This film shows that horror does not live in the effects and villains, but in the mind, and does so, admirably.
The Witch is a challenging film to assess. As a horror film, it's certainly disturbing, with some impressively twisted imagery to convey its more terrifying sequences but at the same time, the film is slow, hard to understand and at times too much of a philosophical onion to really fit into that genre. As a period piece, it's fantastic, with every inch of the movie feeling like it was ripped right out of a history book. At times the costumes are so authentic it almost feels like the movie wasn't even made in the 21st century.
The old English is rough as hell and the set pieces are accurate to a tee. Combined with an acceptable minimalist soundtrack and cinematography that portrays the confusion, mystery and degrading sanity of the main characters, The Witch constitutes one of the best period pieces around. As a spiritual and philosophical film, it's a complex and mixed bag. The examination of fundamentalist Puritan beliefs is both relevant to the current time period as well as a necessary exploration, given the recent push to redefine (in a historically accurate manner) colonialism in the early years of the European intrusions in North America. The film is clearly accurate to the times and the self destruction of the family due to their own extremism and delusion is a fascinating study, even if it does come in the form of a slow moving plot. The repression aspect, both sexually and behaviorally, is also fascinating portrayed, with a nuanced look at Thomasin's growing sexuality and the quelling of normal childhood behaviors in the family's five children.
The fear of all things sexual is clearly laid out and becomes a real part of the critique the film levies. Of more interest to me however is the place that The Witch holds in the growing pantheon of New Western films that are rapidly moving to encompass European colonialism in its many stages (New World, Louisiana Purchase and the American West, among others), redefining Hollywood's traditional epic whitewashing of our nation's troubled history. In this context, which seems to have been mostly ignored by critics, The Witch is more of an exploration, both figuratively and literally, of the attitudes of the colonizers of the New World and how these attitudes poisoned settlers thought processes towards each other, the indigenous peoples and the land itself.
In The Witch, the fears of the family, fears of God's judgement, of the unknown and of the land/peoples that they did not understand actually prompts the family to create these fears for themselves. In this sense, The Witch is about European colonists becoming the evil they feared in the New World, a narrative seldom addressed in film so accurately. Nevertheless The Witch is certainly not the most entertaining or the most concise version of this narrative (see Bone Tomahawk or The Revenant) and it often finds itself lagging despite a relatively short run-time. Additionally, in the process of chasing accuracy, there is a feeling that the director may have sacrificed some of the coherency of the plot, with the film feeling a bit like multiple accounts wound together (which appears to be exactly what happened). The results alternate between boring and confusing, although there is a lot to appreciate while watching The Witch and if you can isolate its philosophical components and step away from the horror aspect, the film makes for a decent watch.