The most problematic aspect of Eggers’ The Witch (2016) is that it wants to be too many things: a chamber drama, a horror, a socio-historical document, a parable of religious-mystic fervor… While the film’s tone and visual appeal is rather artfully done with seemingly minimalist intentions, it wears quite onerously on the viewer, whose mixed reactions of drama, horror, and psychology are placed in a convivial jug which supports less than what it promises.
Though the film begins with a rife dramatic plot, offering a plethora of interesting narrative arcs, this drama is undermined by Eggers’ relentless aim to maintain atmosphere, even when efforts to maintain atmosphere come at the expense of authentic storytelling. For these reasons, the film does nothing to transcend the generic tropes of horror filmmaking. While The Witch is certainly more tastefully done than the average horror film, it still resorts to jump-scares, an ominous soundtrack, and shock-horror images. Relying a little too heavily on these superficial techniques, the Witch forgoes depth and psychological resonance for momentary thrills and surprises.
This is really unfortunate since the film’s folk setting is truly ideal for its religious themes and content. Just see one of Bergman’s psychological chamber drama’s like Hour of the Wolf to compare. But here, in Eggers’ very contemporary chamber drama, the film’s dialogue and religious intentions are both extremely heavy handed and only on the surface. The dialogue which informs constantly about sin, covenants with the devil, purity, chastity, etc. strays along the hollow and repetitive. Religious talk happens throughout the film but never feels particularly authentic to the time its portraying. Instead it seems to be lodged into this very specific folk viewpoint, one surrounded by fear and irrationality. The actors, while all performing quite well, deliver forced dialogue which feels contrived for the purposes of telling Eggers’ not so powerful story about alienation, witchery, martyrdom, and the makings of a covenant with the devil.
The Witch is shot well, with a stark aesthetic design and highly clean and crisp photography. The clarity of the aesthetic to some extent goes against realism of the conveyed period and settings, though the horror/folk aspect of the film may help one see past this anachronistic detail. In spite of this, The Witch is highly visually appealing. A long dolly shot from a carriage appears near the beginning, defining the film’s observant and perhaps detached cinematographic style. This style is contrasted greatly in moments of horror, such as when Caleb, in a noteworthy scene, speaks to Jesus while the camera jump cuts in close-ups and whips around his delirious face.
Certain visual motifs and cliches litter the film. A creepy pair of twins, a black sheep, and ominous shapes figure prominently. The main protagonist is, of course, a young, pale, virgin female. Her perceived innocence and how it becomes tarnished by the sin around her becomes of most importance to the film’s underlying thematic intentions. The Witch is not so much about the horror of a witches actions but about the horror of humanity’s actions in response to a perceived ‘witch’. When this concept becomes realized towards the end of the film, it provides a substantial conclusion to an otherwise mundane film. The ending is definitely worth the watch and retroactively justifies much of the chaos, convolution, and contrivance found throughout the film.
63/100 – Decent.