Ashvegas movie review: ‘The Witch’


Ashvegas Movie Review

By Marcianne Miller

The Witch

Fascinating horror art film based on an ancient folktale.

Special Note: Beautiful-looking but not for the squeamish.

Players: Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie.

Director/writer: Robert Eggers (feature debut)

Rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity.

Fine Arts and Carolina Cinemas. Check theatre listings.

The Witch has rightfully achieved artistic recognition at Sundance and other competitive venues and is now being shown in theatres. The atmosphere of the film – the cinematography, costumes, set design—is so beautiful it’s hypnotic – you feel you’ve been enchanted into a moving painting and completely forget you’re watching a movie. The music, which WCQS classical music guru Chip Kaufmann tells me is based on 17th century string music in a minor key—is appropriately eerie.

I’m glad I saw the film, but I can’t imagine seeing it again, and I honestly don’t know anybody to whom I could recommend it. The reason is that despite its cinematic beauty, The Witch is unremittingly bleak, its images so haunting that many people will find it extremely disturbing. For Asheville audiences, the story brings up, and in fact exploits, the ancient malicious view of witches, which current Goddess-honoring groups are trying to correct.

It’s the 1630s, over two generations before the infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. The strict religious settlers in the “plantation” demand total agreement from everyone. But William (British actor Ralph Ineson) disagrees with the leaders. Instead of killing him outright, the leaders banish him, in essence condemning him and his family to a slow, inevitable death.

William believes he is doing what God wants him to do, so with hope, he takes his wife Katherine (Scottish actor Kate Dickie) and five children to a distant, unpromising plot of flat land facing a thick forest. Forests at this time were not viewed as benign retreats. They were seen as forbidding, dark places full of terror and evil. A God-fearing man would avoid forests, or cut them down at the quickest opportunity.

The oldest child is Thomasin (American actor Anya Taylor-Joy in a stunning performance), a lovely teenager in the throes of awakening sexuality and adolescent dissonance. Her younger brother is at the age where he is peeking at her breasts but doesn’t know what to do about his strange feelings. There are two young brat twins who are always getting in trouble. And a brand new baby who Thomasin loves to care for.

One day, while playing peek-a-boo, we are horrified with Thomasin when the infant suddenly disappears. In the distant forest a woman runs away with the child in her arms. The family searches everywhere for the baby but never find a trace of it. The grieving mother is convinced the child has been stolen by witches and starts to suspect Thomasin of being a witch herself.

Because we have seen the witch as real when the infant was stolen, we see the progressive destruction of the family, not as hallucinations of troubled minds, but the genuine work of Satanic witches. It’s a horrible, terrifying process. There is no hope left in this tale, no forgiving God, no loving universe. With The Witch, I felt like I was on a see-saw—immersed in the beauty and craft of the film—yet drowning in its misery.

The Witch is obviously a labor of love. It was based on extensive historical research. In fact, much of the dialogue in the film is taken from real transcripts of ancient witch trials. Which leads to another problem with the movie. The dialogue is 17th century English and often mumbled, so you can barely hear what is said. After a while I realized it didn’t matter for me to hear what the characters said, I could figure it the story by the visuals and music. It might have been a deliberate decision by Eggers to keep the dialogue obscure so that the visuals dominated the story, but I don’t think the movie would have been hurt by understanding what people were saying.

Director Robert Eggers has created a flawless horror movie and made an unforgettable debut. His horror is both subtle and powerful, everything he shows us–a candle, a rabbit, a black goat, a shadow– carries layers of meaning. The tension is so relentless you feel like screaming, not because something has jumped out at you, but because the dread is so intense you need to let it out. If haunting, horrible beauty is your thing, see The Witch. If’ you’d rather avoid nightmares, sit it out.