The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015)
Written and directed by Robert Eggers
Produced by Brian Campbell, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Daniel Bekerman, Rodrigo Teixeira, Lourenço Sant’Anna, Sophie Mas, Michael Sackler, Julia Godzinskaya, Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus, Alex Sagalchik, Alexandra Johnes, Jonathan Bronfman, Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochoa, Joel Burch, Rosalie Chilelli, Lauren Haber, Mark Gingras, Ethan Lazar, Lon Molnar
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Charlie, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens
“It is not actually a sign of spiritual eminence to be moral in the Puritan sense; it is simply a sign of docility, of lack of enterprise and originality, of cowardice.”
–H. L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy
There was a farmstead by forest where a family relocated from their Puritan settlement for the galled initiative of its patriarch (Ineson), after his firstborn daughter (Taylor-Joy) was accused of witchery. Falling to hunger, pestilence and paranoia, madness from misfortunes, sorcery and sin, no one of their attrited party remained to bear testimony after they were by woods devoured before 1630 ended.
A postscript inserted into this movie’s end credits concedes derivation of folklore and historical reports adapted to its events and dialogue, but a true afflatus guided Eggers’s percipient portrayal of the Puritan ethos, and of faunal happenings interpreted as Satanic signs and witchcraft. Harsh ironies are peppered for and underpin the self-fulfilling prophecy that drives his period piece, as how expectations of providence beget delusion, despair follows the uncertainty of salvation, iniquity’s often an unintended accompaniment of righteous response, the neuroticism intrinsic to their Abrahamic faith renders these hardy settlers as psychically unfit to contend with imagined or veridic black magic as they are ill-equipped to farm or hunt in the wilds of the New World, and that sin in their belief is so comprehensively defined that frivolity is indistinguishable from atrocity.
Eggers amenaged his first feature with a veteran’s virtuosity and no needless flourishes. Painterly static shots inspired by Renaissant and Baroque portraiture and still lifes example the refinement of his manner, which is handsomely actualized by Craig Lathrop’s agricultural production design.
By daylight, moonlight feigned, and candlelight supplemented, Jarin Blaschke imaged scenes in 1.66 : 1 to display sylvestrian immensity and indoor confinement, a method equiparable to those of Tarkovsky and Teshigahara for their retention of the Academy ratio well after the latter’s industry had roundly adopted widescreen formats. Many daily exteriors are grayed by grading to convey New England’s overcast weather, in contrast to the lambency of rooms lit by flames.
Only a few operative abruptnesses call attention to Louise Ford’s improminently polished cut.
Taylor-Joy’s is this picture’s fair face, delicately radiating by broad Celtic eyes and cupid’s bow a vulnerability shared but unsurpassed by her co-stars. Reaffirming their reputations for versatility, gravelly Ineson and shrill Dickie counterpoise his forbearing stoicism against her mounting hysteria in expression of the same fatal desperation. Nearly everyone here — including young Scrimshaw as a doubting, then hexed younger brother, and bratty little twins Grainger and Dawson — performs plausibly in King’s English with prodigious vim. Sable, sportive billy goat Charlie is the most natural of them all, his steady stare implying the subtlest maleficence.
Pendereckian strings and Ligetan chorus as horrific disharmony are nothing novel, but Mark Korven’s distinctly selected nyckelharpa, waterphone, hurdy gurdy, and jouhikko sound dissonantly with viols and cello for his eerily angular score.
Candles weren’t affordable in such abundance to impoverished, colonial families. Formal “you” and informal “thou” are uttered carelessly for each other.
Antipathetic, archetypal Puritans and witches have peopled tiresome, lowbrow filmic fayre athwart the Atlantic, but Eggers’s rigorously researched, powerfully played tragedy chills to the bone with admirable rarety and ambiguity, focused on the failings of piety before grue indelible.