REVIEW: The Witch

15 02 2016

This review originally appeared on Movie Mezzanine, for whom I covered Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.

Forms of storytelling never really die – the functions they serve simply migrate and reappear somewhere else. The folk tale is one such manner of expression that seems rather obsolete in the modern world, not yielding any overtly major works in the past two centuries or so. But director Robert Eggers identifies where they went in “The Witch,” a film that bears the subtitle “A New England Folktale.” The moral panic and blatant grandstanding on right and wrong has found a comfortable home in the horror genre.

Just drawing this parallel is a revelation in and of itself. In many ways, “The Witch” feels like the ultimate movie of its ilk, since it draws such power from returning to the roots of American anxieties. Horror films often stage dichotomies like destiny and fate or good and evil, pitting these two impersonal forces against each other in an often frustratingly nebulous fashion. Eggers finds the terror in calling a spade a spade, explicitly staging his film around the binary conflict to which all others really refer: God vs. Satan.

This open acknowledgment of the dueling forces not only puts us in the mindset of the film’s deeply religious characters – a Puritanical family living on the outskirts of their new colony – but also untethers the story from expectations of reality. Eggers devises a scenario where he can have it both ways, allowing “The Witch” to take place in a very gritty, grounded reality while venturing into the supernatural. The resulting tale plays like the mashup between “The Exorcist” and “The Crucible” that no one knew they needed to see.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 26, 2015)

26 11 2015

Red Road

With the (deservedly) heightened focus on raising the profile of women directors in the film industry, one name springs to my mind among those deserving more opportunities: Andrea Arnold. If you didn’t read through all of Vulture’s 100 Women Directors Hollywood Should Be Hiring, there’s a chance you already saw her name since it falls at the beginning of the alphabet. However, you should look deeper into her imposing body of work and discover the prowess of a master.

I jumped on the Andrea Arnold bandwagon after her 2010 film “Fish Tank” gave me a new vocabulary to make sense of my formative adolescent years but shamefully only just got around to her 2007 debut, “Red Road.” This sparse, tense thriller is “Rear Window” by way of “The Lives of Others” – not a bad start for a director and definitely a deserving pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Kate Dickie stars as CCTV operator Jackie, a woman who finds herself so lonely that she begins to internally narrativize the people she observes on her screens. But one day, she takes it a little too far after watching a man and a woman fornicating in an abandoned lot. (Don’t worry, she’s not motivated by pure perversion.) Her target is Tony Curran’s Clyde, a figure with a connection to Jackie’s painful past that she unsuccessfully attempts to bury in her mind.

To say much more would only serve to spoil the suspense Arnold builds throughout “Red Road.” But in her slow burn towards an intriguing end of the road, she gives the viewer ample time to contemplate the ethics of voyeurism and interference. And, now, it makes one wonder how she wrangled the incorrigible Shia LaBeouf for her upcoming film “American Honey.”