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Unsympathetic Magic

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is my favorite movie of all time. It is, to me, perfection, a movie where every disparate piece of the production, from script to sound design to casting to acting to cinematography to editing, works together to produce a singular effect on the audience without losing the various intricacies of human experience along the way. Jack’s madness, Wendy’s determination, Danny’s fear, and Dick Hallorann’s bravery all play against one another in the mundane yet otherworldly setting of the vacant Overlook Hotel to produce a story that is as fantastical as it is humane.

The basic dramatic framework around which The Shining is built is not original to it. Combining the quotidian with unnatural isolation to create a space in which the characters’ feelings, thoughts, and, specifically, fears, are magnified and warped is a classic horror setup that dates back as far as Nosferatu. More recently, Roman Polanski had re-contextualized that very tension for Rosemary’s Baby, in which Rosemary’s isolation is as much social as it is physical. Yet such stories are balancing acts that require a steady hand behind the pen and camera to pull off, lest they degenerate into bland characters screaming and running around an abandoned house with no purpose other than being coldly killed by a masked murderer.

Robert Eggers’ debut film The Witch is a perfect example of how old cinematic forms can have new life breathed into them without necessitating a complete reinvention of the mold. Set in Puritan New England, The Witch tells the story of an apostate family that accepts banishment from their plantation and sets off to establish their own farm in the forest. The parents, played by Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, both Games of Thrones veterans who seem to have been cast for their decidedly Dutch Golden Age facial features, raise their brood of children with a healthy fear of the woods around their small farmstead. The oldest children, Thomasin (played by otherworldly newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy) and Caleb (portrayed by Harvey Scrimshaw, another talented new face), shoulder their share of familial responsibilities while the younger kids, lead by obnoxious twins Mercy and Jonas, skip, sing, and generally make mischief around the farm.

Despite a couple of early appearances, the ontological fact of the titular witch remains a mystery for much of the film, which produces the internecine fighting that this type of horror movie relies upon. While besieged from without, little family lies begin to snowball in importance until they become forces of destruction themselves. Just like in The Shining, supernatural forces work both directly to harm our protagonists and indirectly to destabilize their sanity. Before the final reveal, the witch herself could plausibly have been a figment of imaginations driven to madness by isolation and hunger, and The Witch owes much of its success to this combination of supernatural and mundane terror.

From a pure production standpoint, The Witch is beautiful. The cinematography captures the leafless desolation of the New England forest with cold precision, and Eggers’ habit of letting his shots linger a few seconds too long repeatedly pays off, especially when paired with the film’s excellent soundtrack, which seems to be composed entirely of howling violins and voices racing towards a spine-chilling crescendo. An early shot of the doomed family riding a wagon loaded with their possessions into the imposing tree line establishes the film’s barren tone.

The characters’ dialogue is similarly cold and precise. All of the dialogue is written in a contemporary, neo-Biblical style, full of “thous” and “thys” and archaic constructions that keep the characters at arms-length from the audience as well as one another. The subtleties of such complex verbiage encourage the existence of half-truths and things-unsaid, and the overwhelmingly religious bent of much of the dialogue reinforces the family’s supposed Godliness in the face of a specifically Satanic evil.

Yet The Witch’s true strength is its subtlety. Every scene plays out slightly differently from how one might expect it to, and even the film’s nods to standard storytelling, such as the appearance of Chekhov’s Cleavage, pay off in ways that twist cliches. Even more importantly, the story is told without much of the heightened cinematic language that so frequently comprises horror films. This matter-of-factness stems from the fact that The Witch tells a supernatural story from the perspective of deeply religious people whose concept of magic is better developed than our own. These are not people who eschew witchcraft as superstition; to the contrary, for them, the existence of witches (and, by extension, Satan) is proof that their belief in Christ is justified. The tension in the film comes from the fact that we, as the audience, know that the family is being assaulted by external forces while the family members suspect one another. By the end, the family itself is as much as source of fear as the mysterious woods.

But whether or not you like The Witch is likely to depend on how you feel about the ending. Much like Rosemary’s Baby, The Witch ends with a major reveal that veers close to camp in order to produce a feeling of terror. I felt that the ending was perfect, and struck the surreal note that the director clearly intended it to, but I can imagine other viewers being disappointed or put off by the closing scene. But even if the end isn't to your liking, The Witch is a remarkable debut and a standout horror movie that needs to be seen and deserves to be reckoned with.

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