Sunday, February 28, 2016

Unnerving THE WITCH Is A Slow Burn Until It Boils

THE WITCH (directed by Robert Eggers, 2016)

Seeing "The Witch" is like being suffocated in your sleep. You aren't fully aware of what's happening until you're gasping for breath. 

This isn't a horror movie that announces itself. There's no grandstanding. No jump scares. No easy moments of silence followed by the inevitable crashing piano chord. Instead, writer/director Robert Eggers lures you into his lair and subtly wraps his talons around you, creating a fully realized world precisely so he can bring it crashing down. Horror doesn't work simply because of tricks. It works because of the fundamentals. It works when it lays the groundwork of character and time and place. That's the difference between a cheap scare thanks to editing and a genuine scare thanks to investment.

For any genre movie to work, it must first and foremost respect its genre. And Eggers approaches horror like he's asking Don Corleone for a favor on the day of his daughter's wedding.

His trick is to build "The Witch" not as a horror, but as a psychological family drama. It's 1630s New England, and a family is excommunicated from a Puritan village for their extreme religious beliefs, which seems like tossing a Green Bay Packers fan out of the stadium for excessively painting his chest, but I'm no historian. After days of aimless travel, they settle upon a patch of land in the forest to build their own self-sustaining society. Months pass, and their crops are dying, their newborn son inexplicably goes missing during a game of peek-a-boo, and the family is methodically torn apart. Bad luck runs deep, so you know, witches, right?

To the movie's credit, and key to its success, that last assumption plays completely reasonable in context. Eggers cut his teeth as a production designer, and he doesn't simply show us this world, he plunges into it. The cramped rooms, the dim lighting, the dirty clothes, the religion. It all grows from scratch, from the opening frames onward. We learn and feel what it takes to survive in this place, in this time. We're participants, not witnesses. When the family theorizes that a witch must be the root of the unexplainable, it not only feels acceptable, but logical. 

Eggers keeps us further on our toes, though, by never going all in with this notion. His method recalls "The Shining" (not a small or baseless comparison) in its resistance until the final act to accept an otherworldly phenomenon. Despite its title, "The Witch" holds back as long as possible to confirm the titular figure, not only building the terror, but amping our suspicions. 

A lesser horror movie might take the easy route. Introduce a witch in the first act, terrorize the family in the second, watch them fight back in the third. Thankfully "The Witch" never met a convention it couldn't shatter. The family knows there's a witch out there. They feel it in their bones. But they can't confirm it, and as a result, they quickly turn on each other. Instead of being about a scary figure in the shadows, this structure brings the terror home, echoing "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" from "The Twilight Zone." By the time Eggers plants his feet in the ground and makes a choice about the reality of the witch, he doesn't create fear as much as heighten the fear already there.

In our hearts and our brains, we know witches aren't real, so we can't truly feel threatened by them. But the family you love and trust accusing you of witchcraft, and there's no escape for miles? There's some nightmare fuel for you. 

Throughout it all, from the quiet moments to the explosive ones, "The Witch" carries an ever-present and ever-growing dread. Not the dread of what's around the corner followed by a quick reward. No, it's that deep, unnerving, unsettling dread. The dread that claws at your core and that feels almost too personal and too visceral to watch, captured by Eggers in a compelling argument for digital photography. Film, by nature, might give an added richness and texture to this world. Eggers' digital lens, however, brings a coldness to even the brightest daylight hours. It's not inviting. It's harsh and flat, and in portraying a family terrorized by an unknowable force, we sure don't feel like home.

That tone and the ending payoffs make "The Witch" technically a horror movie, but it also raises the fundamental question of what is a horror movie? One key scene in the middle of the story finds the older son seemingly possessed by...something, be it a witch or mental illness, as he launches into a truly unsettling monologue, impeccably delivered by young actor Harvey Scrimshaw. Watching this moment, it's impossible not to be reminded of Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," but Eggers stays just this side of the chaotic, never pushing too far, epitomizing the approach of "The Witch."

So what do we demand from our horror movies? Scares? Jumps? Just like we demand laughs from comedies? Those answers aren't necessarily wrong, but in requiring base reactions, it's not far removed from pornography. Make no mistake - if you let it, "The Witch" will scrape the skin from your spine. But it also argues for horror as a vehicle. A vehicle for ideas, a vehicle for character, a vehicle for story. 

Those final 15 minutes of "The Witch" reward your patience, but Eggers wants to take you on a journey before you arrive. Go in to a picture like this with the appropriate expectations and cherish the ride.

If nothing else, it gives us that damned black goat.

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