Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #704
Number of Views: One
Release Date: January 27, 2015 (Sundance Film Festival), February 19, 2016
Country of Origin: United States, Canada
Box Office: $40,400,000
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: Robert Eggers
Producers: Rodrigo Teixeira, Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Jay Van Hoy
Screenplay: Robert Eggers
Special Effects: Luc Benning
Visual Effects: Geoff D.E. Scott
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
Score: Mark Korven
Editing: Louise Ford
Studios: Parts and Labor, Rooks Nest Entertainment, RT Features
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Julian Richings, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Daniel Chaudhry
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Mark Korven “What Went We”
 Mark Korven “Isle of Wight”
 Mark Korven “Caleb’s Seduction”
I’ve always harbored an intense fascination for witches. Forget the wart-ridden old hags who ride around on their airborne broomsticks cackling at the moon; I’m talking about the real deal here. Necromancy as it was labelled in 17th-century England is a term for the practise of magic as a means for communicating with the deceased – either by summoning their spirit or raising them bodily – and while some used it for the purpose of divination, others preferred its more ill-mannered alternative. If there were shenanigans to be had back in the day, then witchcraft proved the ideal bargaining tool to get up to some real juicy shit. In a world bereft of smart phone technology, boredom reigned supreme, and not everyone had the same take on raising public profile. While law-abiding peasants went about cultivating their crops and being curt and civil to their fellow townsfolk, witches were more content to hang back in the shadows, concocting all manner of vile recipes to taint said harvest before hitting their targets where it really hurt. The whole broomstick deal was optional I’m sure although the last thing any budding necromancer wanted was to draw unwanted attention to themselves in such turbulent times.
You see, should the town’s acting lawman get so much of the faintest whiff of a hex being placed within their zip code, then they’d pull in anyone deemed even remotely culpable courtesy of a good old-fashioned witch-hunt and subject these undesirables to trial most public. Should the accused protest their innocence successfully, then their reward for acing the test would be drowning. Let a solitary cackle slip, on the other hand, and burning at the stake was the sweetener. In the history of Sophie’s choices, this doozy may well be the Sophiest. Fire may well be a toasty treat when dancing around it naked chanting Pagan verse but tends not to be so hot when charring your marrow down into tomorrow’s mortar mulch before a baying crowd. This damned if you don’t mentality was a constant headache for those practising in the black arts and they must’ve been ruing not being born centuries later when pretty much anything is considered fair game. Nowadays those charged with necromancy would consider themselves hard done by to see their Twitter service deactivated by the powers that be but I’m assured they’d have racked up a fair few followers before the axe fell, perhaps even had their shit verified. No wonder witches were itching for a spot of mild peril.
I believe it was that particular image that stuck you know. The whole nude Pagan ritual affair kind of had me at corsets off and deep down part of me always desired to join in the festivities; throwing caution to the ember and raising hell with my sisters whilst attempting to cop a feel every time they brought it in for a group hug. I’d hate to curse another’s corn rows or anything unsavory like that; but an impromptu disco inferno I’m more than up for. Indeed I have a pocketful of marshmallow fluff on hand at all times in the likely event that things get really incendiary. Sign me up and I’ll skip on the cauldron, which I guess would make me necplatonic and therefore of precious little threat to anyone other than myself and perhaps the black cat I just kicked into the blaze. What? Little bastard was looking at me funny. Besides, I’ve got myself a goat by the name of Black Phillip, and his teats produce the most delightful cheese. The thing about Phil is that his habit of suggestion is not too dissimilar to that of an uncoiled serpent, and whatever he proposes invariably entails skullduggery. Thus he ain’t invited to the ho-down. Sorry kid, I’d love nothing more than to place my unequivocal trust in you but you’re only ever one bleat from pissing down my vibe man.
At any rate, thou hath cometh here to read about The Witch and I feel thou wouldst like to live deliciously, am I just? Fret not, as I will guide thy hand through verse. We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us. That said, I think I’d prefer my own tongue to one so enraptured by historic riddle, and if you are breathing a sigh of relief right now, then Robert Eggers’ debut full length feature may not be for thou. I ask that you forget for a minute that this film made pretty much every critic’s top five list for last year (the number one spot more often than not); as that means less than a handful of grain if you’re not prepared to speak its lingo. Like the most fruitful of harvests, what gestates within its roots is firm and unyielding. But nobody said this was going to be easy. Put in the hard graft, see those knuckles riddled with calluses, and it will compensate by manner of crawling beneath your mental canopy and flickering on indefinitely. Whether this film deserves the accolades being tossed its way is irrelevant on this particular undertaking; what matters is your willingness to submit as entertainment is secondary to commitment here.
Our setting for 93 steadily smothering minutes is 17th century New England. Having just arrived in their adopted homeland, modest woodcutter William (Ralph Ineson) and his heavily pregnant wife Katherine (Kate Dickey) have been banished from a Puritan plantation by order of the court for alleged blasphemy. The couple have four children, oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and an imminent fifth, Samuel, so William builds a farm on a small clearing on the outskirts of a sprawling woodland far from prying eyes and plant crops in an attempt to become fully self-sufficient. The birth goes without snag and, though the land appears too fallow to yield a notable harvest, the couple remain devoted to the cause and upbeat about their future. That is until tragedy strikes with scythe-like devastation.
During a harmless game of peekaboo and right beneath Thomasin’s nose, Samuel is snatched away into the thicket, and this rocks the family to their very core. Mother is hit worst and spends her days tucked away inside their broken home sobbing and praying, while her husband attempts to remain pragmatic as he feels it his responsibility to see his loved ones through this period of deep mourning. The twins are too young to fully comprehend this atrocity and easily sidetracked by the family’s goat, Black Phillip, who they say talks to them. Caleb is swiftly taken under his father’s wing and taken on hunting trips in the forest to make the man of him that William will need going forward. This leaves poor confused Thomasin, feeling greatly responsible for their loss, although adamant that the buck for Samuel’s disappearance shouldn’t stop with her. However, things are about to get a whole lot worse before they get any better as the family’s blight has barely even begun.
That is all the synopsis I offer on this occasion as the tale of The Witch is a decidedly dry one and moisture is at a distinct premium throughout. That is not to say it isn’t present; just dug right in beneath the clay and best left uncultivated by yours truly. You see what makes Eggers’ first effort so remarkable is that it feels like the output of a man three or four films into his career, not one still learning his trade. It takes a man with plums like prize pumpkins to entertain constructing something so utterly assured in its direction, whilst unfashionable in its devisal to boot. Anyone waiting for standard jolts and shocks will be left wanting as this isn’t an exercise in ticking boxes and flat refuses to cop-out in such a way. Instead, it asks that we imagine what lies within the mossy hovel deep in the woods, that we watch closely every raven or rabbit that passes through their fast-decaying sanctuary, that we never once feel less than implicated in their collective woe.
All this wouldn’t be possible without excellent casting and the dedication of every last one of our players is staggering. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw do far more than simply recite outdated verse; their faces vocalize every anguish exquisitely. Both characters are at varying stages of adolescence and we feel every last yearning whisper between them, even when neither is speaking. Ineson and Dickie are no less magnanimous, and while the latter really feels like a woman with her soul wrenched free, it is the man of the house that has to play journeyman.
Had William been portrayed as a totalitarian figurehead then the impact of each injustice wouldn’t be halfway as bitter; whereas his values feel timeless and therefore words unerringly sincere. His is the salt of the earth; an immensely proud man he may be but not one opposed to reasoning. Thus we commit. It really is as simple as that.
Eggers puts his skills in production design to exceptional use, with Craig Lathrop fashioning a washed-out vista that is as grey and barren as our outlook, before penning us in with the livestock. Jarin Blaschke’s fluent photography, Mark Korven’s discreetly bewitching score, and indeed the entire sound design are all of the highest order. From a filmmaking standpoint, this is one of aligning stars and dazzling light, but that’s not to say there aren’t challenges.
One of which is the conclusion which doesn’t opt for instant gratification, so much as hone in on departing its slow-burn aftermath. Eggers doesn’t focus on frightening us out of our skin so much as scaring us further into it. Find yourself resting a little less easy after viewing The Witch and its blight will have soaked right in as intended. In this respect, ambiguity is as potent a weapon as intimacy. But it’s the fact that Eggers strikes such an assured balance between the two that resonates strongest. Am I in any rush to watch it again? No. Take that how you will, but I like to think it stands testament to the true power of cinema. And goats.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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