The Witch (2015) Film Review from the 37th Annual Sundance Film Festival, a movie directed by Robert Eggers, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson.
With hard-to-understand Old English dialogue, a slew of unanswered questions, and a squandered ending, The Witch merely serves as an appetizer to more impressive horror fare. But the scares that make one jump are, indeed, present and just may suffice for those who aren’t bothered by a muddled storyline.
Set in New England in 1630, the film follows the family of William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), two Puritans who are just a bit too unorthodox for the townsfolk. The family is banished, along with their five children, to the outskirts of an admittedly paralyzing forest. The two eldest children, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), juggle puberty and raging hormones with large roles in the family, which struggles to grow crops in the inferior soil that blankets that part of the land. When their newborn baby goes missing under Thomasin’s care, all hell breaks loose. Religious paranoia takes hold with an iron grip, and each member of the family begins his/her own personal descent into the unrelenting madness that results. Is there really a witch in the woods that is terrorizing the family? Or are their superstitious and unorthodox beliefs taking over their unenlightened and overstressed minds?
The film starts off strong with multiple genuine scares and glimpses of The Witch (is she real or imagined?) that inhabits the woods, but soon falls flat when the scares stop and the middle third, unfortunately, drudges on. Sure, Caleb has an encounter with a witch (is she real or imagined?) and enters a coma, and the younger twins, Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger), claim to have seen a witch (was she real or imagined?), but the resulting hysterics grow tiresome and fail to move the story along.
Put simply, there is never-ending talk about strange happenings, yet very little of substance actually happens. And when it does happen, it is milked for far too long. It leaves one wondering if The Witch kidnapped the film’s editor!
All of this adds up, and it leads to a drastic pacing problem that serves to halt the tension built by the impressive production design and chilling strings of the score. There is surprisingly little characterization for a story set in a favorable time period with an endless trove of religious and mythical folklore to work with. This, coupled with dialogue that is difficult to comprehend due to a myriad of reasons (the greatest of which is a poorly-executed sound design with too many competing elements) makes for a disappointing film experience.
And then there’s the ending… it appears out of nowhere, and it’s confusing where all of the majestic wickedness comes from. It simply doesn’t ring true to the character (who shall be left undisclosed) or seem to follow what has been unfolding on screen for the previous 85 minutes. It’s hard to justify how a more authentic ending with, perhaps, some interesting social commentary about sexism, religious dogma, and American history, and how they relate to the world today couldn’t have been conjured up. To be slapped with an indictment about how far we haven’t come would’ve been far superior and, suffice it to say, quite horrifying.
The Witch is screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and has been acquired for distribution by A24 for $1.5 million.
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Image Source: Sundance Institute