The Witch / Robert Eggers / 2016 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Beautifully crafted mood; Exploration of evil; Cast
Side Effects: Unique form leads to odd pacing and rhythms

Robert Eggers’ The Witch isn’t just an “assured” cinematic debut—an easy term too often reached for—but a damn near masterful one. An assured film is merely studied and technically proficient; a masterful one is singular and inspired.

Not content to emulate the styles, rhythms or contours of any recognizable formula, The Witch discovers its own shape, its own textures. It doesn’t manufacture chills in trite and familiar ways, but through unnoticed and unexpected tactics that slowly and methodically creep under your skin and stay there. It’s a sustained and uncomfortably close encounter with pure evil.

Eggers’ masterful crafting of this alien and unsettling form is perfectly suited to its period narrative and theological-philosophical underpinnings. Subtitled “A New England Fairytale,” the story indeed displays an elemental simplicity and a folksy authenticity: a 17th century family, banished from their community for their father’s heretical brand of extreme religious zeal, carves out a spartan existence on a meager farm near a foreboding forest. Their spirituality is all original sin and repentance; they pray faithfully but joylessly, experiencing not the love of a redeemer but harsh, daily judgment for the simple transgression of existence. When strange misfortunes and ungodly occurrences befall them, the family suspects a supernatural evil—either from within or without their terrified clan.

The way Eggers charts the intrusion and development of this supernatural evil is thrilling, though uniquely low-key. We begin to see the fraying edges of these tenuous familial relationships and infer the worst. Rather than relying on isolated sequences of horror, Eggers allows the mood of the film to creep and mount, like a stormcloud approaching or a spell being cast. It raises tension and pulses without ostentatiously ratcheting up its pace—a neat trick.

In its austere rural setting, apocalyptic portent and existential angst, The Witch reminded me of Bela Tarr’s masterpiece The Turin Horse. In that film, the strict and unyielding observance of the simple mechanics of survival leads to a terrible and inescapable nihilism; in this film, the strict and unyielding insistence upon sin seems to breathe into existence a terrible and inescapable evil. There is no divine presence in the spirituality of this family, only its conspicuous absence, a void threatened to be filled by the satanic perversion of their faith.

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