A movie like The Witch is a strange thing to behold. On many levels, it’s unlike other films, which is almost always a good thing, knowing how hard it is for something to stand out from the pack. Yet an experimental project still has to work on its own level, and whether this does is an open question, depending on the viewer’s willingness to be receptive to this unorthodox experience and allow the film to wash over you.
It doesn’t make it easy and it never feels normal. Yet the confidence from first time filmmaker Robert Eggars is astonishing in his intentions and ambition. We drop in on a Puritan family in the 1600’s, one that is banished from its presumably New England community and forced to make the trek to the outskirts of the village, setting up a new home in the dark, cold, fringe of a woods that’s rumored to be haunted by vague spooks and even witches. The protagonist of this eccentric film is the oldest daughter, played by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, a teenager with saucer-sized eyes that give her an already otherworldly look that aids in bringing us under her spell. She feels vaguely trapped by this existence but cannot articulate her concerns, not that we’d necessarily understand them even if she did.
That brings me to the the barrier that may keep most people out of this movie’s entry points no matter what happens in the story, and that’s the dialogue itself. Eggars chose to use 17th century Latin influenced dialect- that’s right, there’s a lot of thees, thous and therefores, and the bold use of such an artificial construct is a risky move in terms of accessibility. Some people will never get used to hearing interactions in this manner, and no matter what the source material, there’s no historical assertions you can make to prove people actually spoke like this, even in another time. The effect is to make some of this feel like a stage play, which is yet another barrier to any sense of reality you may be expecting.
If you can get used to these constructs and throw yourself in head first, there’s a haunting and eery sense of atmosphere that floods the entire film. This isn’t exactly a horror movie, but a feeling of dread pervades every moment of it, partly brought about by the sense of a puritan lifestyle being terrorized by evils they cannot understand. The unknown actors do their best with the material, which necessarily inspires some downright histrionic acting when the horrors get ever worse and take their toll on the family. It’s hard to know whether to recommend this film to anyone, knowing very well that some will reject it from the first frame and others will fall in love. I’m a bit stuck on both sides. I was never quite pulled in by the dialogue, but some scenes are so well-directed that it’d be cinematic treason not to commend them. I scoffed in disbelief at certain turns of plot, yet was brought to Cloud 9 by the absolutely transcendent and audacious ending. The only solution is for everyone to see it for themselves. And I’m definitely intrigued by wherever it is Eggars goes next.
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