Tuesday, August 18, 2015

MIFF: 17th century immersion

It's taken a couple days to get up my final MIFF post, and it's now been more than 36 hours since the carnies packed up all the tents and took the first train out of town. I'm feeling a little of the melancholy of the festival being over, as well as my friend Don leaving town.

But Don and I finished on a good note Friday night with Robert Eggers' The Witch at The Forum, the venue where I started two weeks earlier with The Lobster. In fact, at the start, I thought it could have been a great note -- for the first 15 minutes of this film, I was sure it was the best I had seen all year. I just hope it actually gets released this year. As of now, I can't even find a poster online, so what appears above is what you get. I almost think I'd have been better off with just the picture of Anya Taylor-Joy, and done away with the anachronistic looking text.

The reason anachronisms are so inappropriate with this movie is that it works so hard, and with such success, to plunge you directly into its world. The movie takes place in what would become Massachusetts in 1630, and I'm pretty sure that was also where and when it was shot. What? Time machines don't exist? Could have fooled me.

Eggers fastidiously recreates the era of this film's action, perhaps never more noticeably than with the dialogue, which is fairly close to one of Mel Gibson's experiments with using the real language of the characters portrayed on screen (in both The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto). The dialogue is full of dosts and doths and thous, and those are the easy ones. In fact, the dialogue is so dedicated to early 17th century realism that it frequently comes at the expense of coherence -- though not in a bad way. Sometimes I wouldn't understand a word they were saying for as many as ten or 15 seconds, and other times would grab hold of a single word and extrapolate a context for the sentence from that. Overall, it didn't affect my understanding of the plot, so it was a minor price to pay -- and a major boon to the film's overwhelming sense of realism.

I suppose I should tell you what the story is actually about. A devoutly religious pilgrim (Ralph Ineson) believes that the town he and his family are living in is too sinful a place for their religious freedom to flourish, so he builds a homestead on the edge of a wood that many believe is haunted. At first things go fine; William's pregnant wife Katherine (Game of Thrones' Kate Dickie) gives birth to a baby boy, and their crops thrive. But then the baby disappears while under the watch of their oldest daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), and the crops die. Although a wolf is blamed for the disappearance of the baby, the persistent rumor of the cursed woods -- specifically, witches -- can't escape the characters' thoughts. Katherine wonders aloud if it's her own daughter Thomasin who is bewitched, while Thomasin sees suspicious behavior in the twins, who are around six years old and who have (what may be a pretend) nefarious relationship with a black goat on their farm. That leaves the father and early teenage brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) in the middle, and all of them looking for answers that will prevent their family's story from turning permanently toward tragedy.

What The Witch does exceptionally well is set a sense of mood. In the opening ten or 15 minutes, which are largely free of dialogue, the film feels a bit like Terrence Malick's The New World, only more authentic in its appearance. It captures these perfectly gray Massachusetts woods through dynamite camera work and a crisply matter-of-fact production design that gives you an immediate sense of place, and immersion. And without dialogue, it feels a lot like something Malick would actually make, without relying on the whispered voiceover that can sometimes irritate in a Malick film. We just get images of this world and their life, accompanied by a chilling sound design that features everything from eerie angelic voices to the jarring concatenation of brass and wind instruments. It's an orchestra of sensation indeed.

It's not that it becomes anything less than this after these first 15 minutes, it's just that they are clearly the film's strength. Story is not necessarily its strength, though that is certainly arguable. Where this story goes, objectively, is fine, and in fact some might find it to be the perfect realization of what this story is supposed to be about. As with any witch story, one of the narrative goals is to recognize the hypocrisy and short-sightedness of those who accused others of being witches with only the most circumstantial evidence to support their claim. That is certainly present here too, and by limiting the dynamics of such paranoia to just one family, it creates a terrific claustrophobia. Eggers also gives certain supernatural aspects of the story a chilling physical reality that is incredibly effective.

What ultimately leaves me a little cold, and with a slight hesitation about the wholly enthusiastic recommendation I want to give it, is that the story itself could probably never be a fully satisfying extension of what the first 15 minutes of The Witch gives me. Which doesn't mean it's a bad direction, or even the wrong direction, to take the movie. A movie can't be as scary as The Witch is with only ambiguous hints of what's happening to this family -- sometimes you have to get what's actually happening. And what's actually happening was inevitably a mild disappointment for me.

But should you see this movie? HELL YES. One thing I have yet to mention is the uniform superlative level of the acting, especially among young actors. Scrimshaw has one powerhouse scene, and Taylor-Joy is a true find, likely to break out from this movie in a big way. Much of the film's ambiguity lies in her character, and she brings a fecund earthy specificity to her performance that is at times startling. Simply put, you can't take your eyes off her -- she is confronting you with some kind of unspoken sexuality that's unsettling.

Let's just hope you will actually have the opportunity to see this movie sometime soon. It seems an unusually long gestation period for a film that was such a hit at Sundance this year, especially with Halloween barely two months off and no release date yet set for the film. To be sure, it's not your typical Halloween horror and may not ultimately be a hit, but the idea that it's languishing around without a release date seems kind of absurd, given the undeniable talent that is dribbling out of every pore of this movie.

Thanks for another great MIFF, MIFF! See you next year.


Don Handsome said...

We agree until you said you were left cold by PARTS of this movie. I think the coldness is the point. The immersion in language is brilliantly alienating and the unflinching shots of frozen god-fearing eyes and faces start us in an icy place. The disfunction of this fringe family is palatable. As crops die, winter is fast approaching and while they don't admit to this, they are deeply frightened of it. And maybe its that fear of cold that justifies the turns the film takes that you object to. For me, what happens is less important than the way it changes the tone. We go from cold to something else that I believe to be perfectly compatible with the Malickian beginnings. But everything else you say is true. This is a very bold film that most certainly finishes what it starts and does so in such a stark and terrifying way. A GREAT achievement. So glad I was there.
(and what a beautiful theater)

Derek Armstrong said...

It's true, but "being left cold" by a movie in my parlance means I was shut off to it. I mean, a movie can leave you cold in a more physical way by being set in a cold location (you could be "left cold" by The Thing) or an emotional way by dealing with icy people (you could be "left cold" by Shame). But I really like both of those movies. In this case I get what the movie was going for and I felt it, but it was unsatisfying to me in some way I can't put my finger on. Still, I'm really looking forward to seeing it a second time and appreciating its haunting beauty again. And I still see it as a four-star movie.

Thanks for coming! To Australia and also to the movie.