****/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B
starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Nelson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
written and directed by Robert Eggers
by Walter Chaw Robert Eggers's The Witch details a young woman's coming-of-age as a thing of wonder and, to her Puritanical community, an incalculable and infernal threat. It has analogs in any number of films dealing with female sexuality, unlocking avenues for critical dissection. It parallels Osgood Perkins's extraordinary February (a.k.a. The Blackcoat's Daughter), rhyming it in not just tone but denouement, too, as young girls dance with the devil literally and metaphorically, and find it good. It parallels Jaromil Jireš's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders in its tale of budding sex and the surreal phantasmagoria that explodes in the imagination around such a thing. It parallels Park Chan-wook's Stoker, which shares a scene of illicit bliss and similarly decodes the incestuous loathing coiled in the belly of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. Speaking of Hitchcock, The Witch parallels The Birds, where the intrusion of a woman's heat makes things odd. There's a moment in The Birds where heroine Melanie Daniels is confronted by a group of women who accuse her of causing Nature to go weird, while in The Witch, a family alone in the American pre-colonial wilderness blames eldest daughter Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) for the same thing. In both cases, they're right. The misfortune generally begins with menstruation or codes for the same--a blot of red on white cloth, a mention in The Witch that Tomasin has begun her period and thus should probably be sent to live with a different family as a servant in order to protect...well, not herself, anyway.
The family blames a wolf for the baby's disappearance. Later, an apparition in the forest appears clothed in a red riding hood. The Witch is about folktales that reveal themselves in this context as cautionary guides for survival in environments bent on murdering and eating the tellers. They are cultural fires against the night. Most are about sex. Caleb disappears, too, only to return to suffer at the attentions of his mother, bleeding him in her maternal instinct to heal him, underscoring the film's thesis that all is lost to good intentions--and that good and evil are opposite sides of the same devalued coin, senselessly ever in tension. Caleb, for the first part of the film, has been watching Tomasin's pubescence with surreptitious, guilty interest. At the river, as Tomasin does the wash, he looks away in shame and, later, asks his father if he's going to Hell like his unbaptised baby brother. "Only God knows," says William. The Witch is about damning the Natural. The twins, meanwhile, play a game where they talk to their goat, Black Phillip, and Black Phillip responds. Apples play a role at one point, reminding of other witch stories, including the one about a Garden, conspiring with Serpents, and knowledge of sin as the ruin of Man. There's another image that haunts, of a crow nursing at a woman's breast. It's straight out of Bosch, and like Bosch, it visualizes the atrocities that Christianity has conjured in the pursuit of oppression and its doctrine of fear. The real horror of The Witch is that the Puritans' beliefs have manifested malignancy. There is no sin without salvation, see, though Christianity owns no part in sin's creation. They're right: The battle isn't between "good" and "evil," it's between "doctrine" and "nature." Doctrine is books and civilization. Nature is blood and semen. Neither exists without the other.
Taylor-Joy, with her delicate features and wide-set eyes, projects a quality of vulnerability and surprise. When her character teases her little sister in a cruel, frightening way, it clarifies the insidious nature of sin. The film opens with Tomasin in prayer, confessing her sins (including violating each Commandment in thought...like murder? Adultery?) and asking for the strength to be better. You believe she wants that. You also believe that she's already too smart for this shit. A marvel, Taylor-Joy is matched by Ineson, who loads his William with infuriating weakness. Weakness that William tries to salve by endlessly cutting wood while the night creeps in on his family, exiled because of his ecclesiastical arrogance. He's trying to control what he cannot control. Even his husbanding of goats is quintessential, because goats would clear areas and made more sense as seed animals for sojourners looking to carve order from chaos. William and Tomasin have a key scene together that begins tenderly then progresses into recrimination. It drives the conclusion and epilogue, where The Witch goes exactly where it should: not into the dark, but into the ecstatic fire. Tomasin is a remarkable heroine in a cycle that has produced a few. She's more Furiosa than Rey, but she embodies elements of each. She is Leda, taking upon herself the vile abuses meted out by the patriarchy and producing a light of feminine vengeance that levels civilizations. The Witch says that the world is only terrible when you ascribe notions of good and evil to it. Is only mysterious when you presume to assign meaning to it. Is only dangerous when you seek to master it. It's made me feel bad for a full day now since watching it because, I think, I want to do all of those things out of my own fear for myself and for my children. I can't wait to see it again, but I'm afraid to. Originally published: February 19, 2016.
THE 4K UHD DISC
by Bryant Frazer Lionsgate continues to take a delightfully democratic approach to its 4K UHD BD line, blessing not just big-budget tentpoles and new home-video arrivals with the prince's kiss of HDR, but also more oddball, low-budget picks like Hell or High Water, American Psycho, and, now, The Witch. Dark, quiet, and gloomy for much of its running time, Robert Eggers's laced-up puritan parable runs on a subversive feminist subtext that's not at all the kind of shtick that tends to move home-theatre hardware. While I'm sure these decisions are driven by a set of spreadsheets and predictive sales formulas running on someone's Mac Book Pro somewhere in L.A., I'm grateful nonetheless to see titles like this get slathered in the positive latest in colour science. You might think a film like The Witch, which gets much of its charge from evil figures barely glimpsed in darkness and the terrible idea of what goes unseen just inside the woods, would benefit from a somewhat less-than-pristine video presentation, but no--on the evidence, Eggers and his DP, Jarin Blaschke, captured exactly what they wanted, using vintage lenses to take the edge off digital acquisition as their camera peered into the darkness. (Per IMDb, they shot mostly at 2.8K but sometimes at 2K, working towards a 2K post-production process.) The Witch looked good on standard Blu-ray, where the images were just dreamy enough to take on a storybook quality, but the 4K HDR presentation goes farther.
As a visual strategy, the imagery here is generally desaturated and given a chilly grey patina. Relieving the monotony somewhat, the higher brightness of the HDR version feels truer to the film's daylight exteriors than the SDR grade, which almost seemed to set the film entirely at twilight. An early moment that has Tomasin playing peek-a-boo with her infant brother benefits especially from the extended dynamics, as every cut from the high-angle shot looking down at the baby back to the low-angle shot gazing up at Tomasin generates a burst of bright sky light that emphasizes the rhythm of the scene, which ends with the child's sudden disappearance. HDR has a similar effect in shots lit by candlelight, the flicker of which is more powerful, pronounced, and even hypnotic. HDR transforms another sequence with young Caleb on his sickbed in a dark room illuminated by a single window overhead: In SDR, it's still a beautifully-composed scene, nodding to Bergman and Bresson, yet HDR somehow provides a better sense of the depth of the tableau and heightens awareness of the shape of the light as it falls across the faces and bodies of the family. I'm not a fan of realism for realism's sake, though I feel The Witch benefits from the increased intimacy of these nearly three-dimensional images; in Dolby Vision especially, the scene almost plays as a theatre piece on a tiny stage, and it's all the more bracing for that added naturalism. The HDR version of the film still doesn't have much in the way of saturated colours or specular highlights, but the overall increase in dynamic range makes a difference, especially on the high end of the image. Like the Blu-ray before it, the UHD BD is (correctly) transferred at its 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio.
English-language audio is delivered on a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that my receiver promptly decoded for matrixed 7.1 playback, with atmospheric effects--birds, bugs, running water, the wind--swirling around a very convincing soundstage. You never forget the picture takes place in the wilds of New England. Supported by a nice, plump low end that may help listeners decode his thick period accent, Ralph Ineson's voice is the highlight of a robust dialogue recording. I wouldn't say your subwoofer will get a workout, but composer Mark Korven's eerie, all-acoustic chamber orchestra, while taking advantage mostly of higher and mid-range registers, ventures into the low end on occasion, especially during the film's concluding passage, soundtracked by thundering kettle drums. All of my speakers were firing pretty much throughout the film's running time, albeit often at low volumes. Audio is presented in English only; Spanish speakers have an optional subtitle track alongside the included English SDH captions.
An informative audio commentary has been ported to this UHD BD from the 2016 Blu-ray release. Listeners hoping for a rundown of Eggers's specific feelings on religion, witchcraft, feminism, and the nature of evil may be disappointed, but he goes into satisfying detail on the film's production and his own underlying research, discussing, for instance, the difference between a puritan and a separatist and explaining which one he thinks William is. He also spends plenty of time talking set design, construction, and dressing (he says he cried the first time he stepped inside the family's house upon seeing how painstakingly his crew had recreated it) and recalling how he coaxed such perfectly obnoxious performances from his child actors--not to mention Charlie, the 200 lb pound goat who played Black Phillip. He doesn't shy away from describing the emotionally gruelling nature of the shoot, either, noting more than once that he tried to cast "good people" who could "take care of each other" on set. And he's generous to a fault, offering complimentary shoutouts to his composer, his costume designer, and even his online editor, who had to remake the credits repeatedly at the last possible minute as more and more producers and executive producers clambered on board the project.
If for some reason you don't want to devote a full 92 minutes to Eggers's yakker, the 8-minute short "The Witch: A Primal Folktale", a no-nonsense collection of talking-head interviews with the director (in a studio setting) and his cast (on location), will get you a good chunk of the way there, covering some of the same territory in an abbreviated format. There's also a less densely informative "Salem Panel Q&A with Cast and Crew" (28 mins.), in which Eggers and Joy take questions at a post-film Q&A in Salem, MA. They're joined on stage by author Brunonia Barry (The Lace Reader), historian Richard Trask, and moderator Emerson Baker, a local professor and historian, all three of whom testify to The Witch's bona fides as regards the historical nature of the New England witch. A step-through "Design Gallery" assembles set sketches by production designer Craig Lathrop, costume designs by Linda Muir, and creepy character concepts by Eggers himself. The companion BD features all of the above, plus a playlist of trailers that auto-cues before the main menu: Green Room, The Adderall Diaries, Mojave, Tusk, and Ex Machina. Finally, a download code for a digital version is tucked inside the packaging.
92 minutes; R; UHD: 1.66:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10; BD: 1.66:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA; English SDH, Spanish subtitles; BD-66 + BD-50; Region-free (UHD), Region A (BD); Lionsgate