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Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Witch Review (2016, Horror/Thriller/Historical Drama, A24)

Evil does take many forms.

Unlike most reviewers, those who left positive ones anyway, I'm approaching this review with a different perspective. It is that in which I consider that maybe things weren't as they seemed through the events of the film. That maybe something, or someone else was responsible for the horrific events befalling our film's Puritan family.

Central to the film is the character Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Right at the outset we are given an indication that her character is flawed; she gives a long, studied confession in which, among other things, she admits to having doubts about her faith. Also important is the detail that she has been rebelling against her parents. That last detail is pretty crucial to her character because we can see why she would feel that way later on in the movie.

Thomasin and her family, particularly because of their patriarchal father, William, are cast out of a New England colony and forced to fend for themselves. They eventually settle in a patch of land flanked by a very creepy forest (one of the creepiest in recent cinematic history, in fact) and it seems like maybe they won't be so screwed.

You'd be wrong.

William is not as competent as he should be, at farming or at hunting, though there may be certain forces at work in sabotaging his efforts. Thomasin's younger brother, Caleb, is hormonal and frustrated, and unfortunately sexually attracted to Thomasin in a few ways, though that undoubtedly is a prime reason as to why he feels so angry. The family also has twin children, who are bratty, loud, and quite irritating. Katherine is the mother who seems rather moody and quick to judge. And the newest addition to the family is Samuel, who is, depending on how you interpret the plot, the catalyst for the rest of the film.

Thomas in is asked to look after Samuel while Katherine tends to certain duties, possibly because William is not very good at doing them himself. So Thomasin takes him to a wide-open stretch of land some distance away and plays peak-a-boo with the baby. It amuses him and she seems amused, too. She does one last peak-a-boo when she notices that Samuel had literally vanished out of thin air right under her nose. In a panic, she shouts his name and runs around investigating. End scene.

One by one, the family is befallen to tragedy. Crops are failing, there's not enough meat to feed the family, William & Katherine are hiding secrets from one another, the twins are behaving rather strangely and accuse Thomasin of being a witch (due to Samuel's disappearance), and Caleb is being Caleb. Thomasin, meanwhile, is clearly conflicted by what happened. But we are never truly sure what her feelings actually are as to what happened. 

Caleb then sets out to retrieve a trap set previously, and it has thankfully caught some meat. Thomasin insists on accompanying him on horseback. They then stumble upon a hare, a creepy one at that, which startles their dog which had tagged along with the two. It also startles the horse, which sends Thomasin flying. Caleb takes after the dog which chases the hare, and it goes downhill from there. Caleb gets lost and desperate, but finds that the hare is nearby. He follows it, not knowing what else to do, but then he encounters something freaky in the woods. Someone is living deep in these woods, it is clear to him. A vaguely beautiful woman in a red robe seductively approaches him, and he gives in. However, in the back of his mind he knows something is wrong, so he is deeply afraid. The figure assertively closes in on him, kisses him on the cheek, and we see a gnarly hand shoot out and grab his head. End scene.

Now the family is getting terrified. Later the next day, though, Caleb returns in a state of delirium. He battles shock and complete lunacy brought on by something traumatic having happened to him, and he is cold. The family desperately tries to pray for his recovery and just when it seemed to work, he lays down, dead. The twins had been acting particularly eerie the whole time, and since Thomasin was the last to accompany Caleb, suspicions arise. Without knowing any alternatives and refusing to seek help from the colony that exiled him and his family, William then assumes supernatural forces at work. As does Katherine, but she wants something done and is getting angry at her husband. Thomasin, meanwhile, is even more conflicted.

Tensions rise among the surviving family members. Buried secrets and vented frustrations lead to drastic measures, marked by desperation and growing paranoia. Thomasin and her twin siblings are then locked in the goat pen overnight. Horrific circumstances befall the twins and the goats overnight, and Thomasin is all that remains. The next morning, William assumes the worst but is then attacked by the creepy black goat, mortally wounded. While he initially decides to retaliate, he then resigns to his fate and is finally killed by another attack from the goat. Soon, Katherine comes out to witness the scene of carnage and totally breaks down, deciding that Thomasin is indeed in leagues with evil and has killed everything that matters to her. Katherine pins Thomasin to the ground, then starts to strangle her. Left with no other choice, Thomasin grabs a nearby knife and takes out her mother. Now she's all alone, drenched in the blood of the last of her family.

Later, the goat leads her to her father's tool shed, and because she is pretty far gone at this point, she does so without questioning anything. She is then spoken to by a mysterious figure, one we the audience can hardly make out visually, beckoning her to give in to temptation and freedom from the life she thought she knew before. And she signs a book with her name. Then, stripped entirely of her clothes, she walks through the forest. Eventually she comes across an entire coven of witches, who are performing a ritual of sorts that leads to them gaining the ability of flight. After a few moments, she, too, begins to fly. As this happens, she is laughing maniacally, like she has been holding something back for goodness knows how long.

Now do you see what I did there?

The film leaves you with more than one interpretation as to how things unfolded before you. Yeah, you could assume that the witch was very much real and was destroying the family piece by piece, leaving Thomasin to join and strengthen the coven in the woods. Or you could try to understand how it also could have happened. It's set up perfectly in order to see things this way; maybe it was Thomasin who carried out all of this terrible destruction of her family, marred by a psychotic breakdown and need for freedom from the life that she clearly cannot stand by. Her parents treat her more as a commodity or means of bribery (by way of dowry), her twin siblings seem to despise her, and Caleb is having conflicting thoughts about her. Plus, she lives in a very Puritan family, where prayer and God are tantamount to proper living and she must attend to the duties expected of her no questions asked. Along with that, people suspect her to be some malevolent force out to destroy the family.

And that might just be true.

It's all based on the opening, wherein Thomasin "asks" for forgiveness by way of confessing to her sins. They all foretell exactly what happens in the film. And if you assume this interpretation to be true, just think about it: she is so far-gone even at the beginning that she can't come to terms with her even carrying out her horrific deeds as the days roll by. The disappearance (and possible murder) of Samuel, the shocking death of Caleb brought about by a horribly traumatic event he went through in the woods the day before (and Thomasin had accompanied him, by the way), the disappearance of the twins and the deaths of the goats, then the deaths of her mother and father. All of these would drive a person mad. Or, if you are going along with this interpretation, even deeper into madness. When all is said and done, through some form of self-hypnosis or delusion, Thomasin finally wanders into the woods nearby, naked as the day she was born, never seen again.

This, I feel, is the genius behind the movie. It also helps that, and part of it may be due it, the film has a meager budget (all but three million dollars were spent on this film); it has a very minimalist approach to horror film-making. There are no jump scares, the lighting is natural, the dialogue is important sparring rather than forced for the sake of filling out the film's runtime, and the music is deep & brooding. Also, while there is certainly gore, there isn't a ridiculous amount of it. There's also a deep tinge of dread that runs throughout, thanks to the setting and the idea that there is an evil witch toying with the family from the shadows, shape-shifting as it sees fit to avoid their defenses.

I do recall that a handful of foaming-at-the-mouth morons, particularly on the web, attacked this movie as a piece of feminist propaganda (everything revolving around Thomasin, basically). As for the rest of us, we aren't so easily triggered into acting like butthurt crybabies and can appreciate a good piece of modern horror when we see it. The film may bore you with is minimalist approach, it is never loud and boisterous so the attention-deficit watchers will probably fall asleep, and you might not even find witches scary (thanks to their usual portrayal in media being totally hammy and well, not scary) but if you're like me, you'll appreciate what the film does absolutely right.


The Good:  

+ Minimalist horror approach helps with the high tension.
+ Witches are actually scary in this movie.
+ Leaves the events of the film ambiguous so that you can interpret it in different ways
+ Great, creepy soundtrack
+ The forest is incredibly creepy and every scene in it is powerful and effective
+ Great use of lighting, as in, there's little at all.
+ Authentic setting and dialogue that fits with the time of the film.
+ No jump scares (an extension of the first positive point)

The Bad:

- Might be a bit too minimalist; it can potentially bore you.
- Caleb's death scene, namely the buildup to it, might come off as unintentionally funny and/or cheesy. It's a bit too forced.

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