There is darkness in the world, of that we can be sure. But there is darkness inside of us, too, and in his first feature film The Witch, writer-director Robert Eggers offers up a good look at both, so we can decide which is worse.
A big hit out of Sundance this year, The Witch opens Friday at the Whistler Village 8, the only new flick this week as we lead into the great white hype of the Academy Awards on Feb. 28.
Good news though, The Witch is pretty badass: set amongst the puritanical religious zealotry of frontier America in the year 1630 (as opposed to the puritanical religious zealotry of today), there is an actual witch in this movie and, while she doesn't cook any children in her oven, it's only because she prefers to eat them raw and rub their entrails on her broom for good luck.
All this makes for tough luck for the poor family trying to make a go of it farming on the edge of her ominous dark wood. As things get weirder for protagonist Thomasin and her family, very human qualities like ignorance, blind faith, hysteria and the unwavering refusal to accept the unknown begin to look just as scary as the supernatural evil that goes bump in the night.
The Witch succeeds on the attention to detail and craftsmanship Eggers uses to create his world. The costumes, sets and acting are very on-point. The old-style dialogue was influenced by real journal writings from the era, so the film looks, sounds and feels legit. And while there might be a few too-convenient jump-scares or mid-movie pacing issues, there's also plenty of lurking doom, religious craziness, suspicious tension, creepy twins, a kick-ass exorcism and a talking goat named Black Phillip.
There's also some decent thematic subtext, if you're into that kind of thing. Witch stories have long been seen as parables for society's fear of and brutality towards the female body, female freedom and feminine power. The hero of the film, Thomasin, is a girl on the verge of womanhood and as she develops her own views and independence she also finds herself as a default scapegoat for things her family can't explain.
Even though it's been almost 600 years since Joan of Arc and over 300 years since the Salem witch trials, contemporary society remains slow to change and continues to shit much harder on women who don't "follow the rules" than it does on their male counterparts. It's okay for Beyonce to sing and dance in a bathing suit at the Superbowl so long as she doesn't say anything that rocks the boat.
In the old days the prescribed method for finding a witch involved baking a "witch cake" out of rye meal and the urine of any young girls believed to be afflicted/possessed by the witch's evil. Once baked, the cake would be fed to a dog because it was believed that the "venomous and malignant particles" a witch used to possess her victims would remain in their urine.
The thinking was that as the dog ate the cake, the witch would feel those pieces of herself being chewed on and she'd cry out in pain. To find a witch was as simple as giving a dog some witch cake and walking around the village until you heard someone moaning and groaning.
It's highly possible under that method that anyone who happened to stub their toe near a lynch mob could be burned at the stake, but I guess every system has a margin for error. There's another theory about ancient witchcraft that's worth everyone bringing up: everyone might also have just been tripping balls off LSD.
Apparently, there's a certain fungus called Claviceps purpurea that grows on rye bread and can produce LSD. In theory, anyone eating bread made from fungus-affected rye, could potentially see people's faces melting, talk to goats and even "witness" a woman casting magic in a dark and shimmery forest. Of course, if you add some loud music to that scenario it becomes a party and everything works out fine, but it's possible good people were murdered back in the day because a bunch of god-fearing folks got a little too close to feeling something real.
In any case, The Witch is worth checking out, and while we're talking about magic, drugs and the Academy Awards, it's ridiculous that Michael Shannon didn't get nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for playing Mr. Green, the prophetic Christmas weed dealer, in The Night Before.
With only a few minutes of screen time Shannon creates a sort of middle-aged Spicoli character for the next generation — there is darkness in the world but at least our high school drug dealers still have our backs.
Pass the witch cake, please.