by Patrick Bromley
Writer/director Robert Eggers' debut feature The Witch has already become one of the most talked about horror movies in years. Prominent genre journalists have called in not just one of the best horror movies in years, but of all time. Mainstream audiences are polarized, with the movie getting a marketing push and a wide theatrical release courtesy of A24 but earning a "C-" on that horrible CinemaScore (which is a worthless and stupid measurement that I only bring up because even a piece of shit tends to earn at least a B, which means those polled were really put off by the movie). Like last year's It Follows and The Babadook the year before that, The Witch has become the next highly contested entry in the horror genre. It can't just be a good movie; it has to be the second coming of horror. If it's not...well, then, it's an overhyped piece of shit. There is no middle ground.
I get it. This is a movie that's going to frustrate any audience who goes into it because it looked scary in a TV spot and is expecting the next The Visit or something. This is not a good time at the movies. It is deliberately paced. It takes place in the 17th century and all of the actors speak in period-accurate dialects and language. It never dumbs itself down or makes any concessions for the viewer, expecting anyone who sees it to keep up with it on the movie's terms. It is uncompromising in a way that will alienate the majority of the multiplex crowd. It is also an expertly realized, visionary piece of work and a great horror film, albeit one to which I didn't connect all that much. I appreciated everything about it without really being drawn in.
The two movies that come most to mind in reflecting on The Witch are The Shining and The Exorcist, though not for the reasons you might think. I'm sure it seems very base and obvious to compare a new horror film to what are widely considered two of the best horror movies ever made -- it suggests a an absence of thought and insight on my part. While these accusations may be completely accurate, I don't draw the comparisons in terms of quality -- this isn't a case of Exorcist director William Friedkin hyping up The Babadook by calling it the scariest movie he's ever seen, thereby implying it is on the level if not superior to his own classic. The Shining comes to mind because of its emphasis on technical perfection, an area at which The Witch truly excels. This is a movie without a hair out of place that director Eggers doesn't want out of place. The camera is calculated and deliberate, the editing unusually patient. Jarin Blaschke's photography, shot almost exclusively in natural light, is impossibly beautiful but never self-conscious in its stylization. The movie is exact but never fussy, cold but not clinical, only loosening as the family slowly descends into disarray and madness, much like the Torrence family's stay at The Overlook hotel.
The movie's "realism" extends to the way it addresses its more horrific elements as well. There isn't the usual hysteria of witchcraft movies, which depend on the historical foundation of the Salem trials to function as a metaphor for the condemnation of women throughout the decades. Eggers sets up almost immediately that there is a real live witch in the movie and that she is causing shit to happen for this family. At the same time, the way they respond works whether the witch is real or not. The movie deals very seriously with faith and religion in ways both positive and negative; at some moments it offers transcendence and at others it is powerless against the very dark forces it exists to combat. The way that Eggers explores the changing family dynamic is fascinating regardless of any supernatural forces at play, and ultimately The Witch can be viewed as a treatise on the dangers of pride. One of my favorite shots in the entire movie is of a bunch of wood falling, a moment that is so tragic on a human level and speaks volumes about our own insignificance. You'll know it when you see it.