The Witch (2016)

the_witchDir. Robert Eggers, 92 min., In Theater

Can a contemporary film address the tired genre of New England witch films? Robert Eggers makes his directorial debut banking on the fact that he has brought something new to the genre, and while his film executes on a number of levels, strength of story is not one of them.

Overly-proud town preacher William (Ralph Ineson) is banished along with his family due to a disagreement with the corporation of his 17th century New England settlement; the exact nature of the offense is only vaguely hinted at, but he seems to be a bit of a holier-than-thou type. William’s homesick wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), grows bitterly resentful as they trudge to the edge of the woods with their young children, the youngest of which is not long for the world and whose loss throws her into a deep depression.

Their children, the teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her younger brother, Caleb (the aptly named Harvey Scrimshaw), function as something of surrogates for their parents: the boy learning the ins and outs of trapping and preaching, the girl assuming the duties of the mother on the homestead including child care (despite the disastrous loss of the aforementioned baby while under her care).

Early in the film, it becomes clear that this is not a metaphorical witch in the ilk of Miller’s Crucible, nor is it the never-seen phantasmagorical witch of The Blair Witch Project. This is your straight up, child-stealing ancient hag, casting black magic in her hovel and running naked through the forest. The closest comparison characters I can summon are the witches in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), where there’s nothing glamorous or seductive about the witch lifestyle (at least not without some appealing supernatural artifice).

That interpretation of the witch folklore seems to match the grinding punishment and defamiliarizing nature scenes through which the family must persevere. Although they wake up on the first day of their banishment covered in mud and swarmed with mosquitos, one quick cut later they are living in a finished house with a bustling farmstead replete with goats, chickens, and a nearly finished barn. That scene of domesticity is quickly interrupted by the tragedy of the lost child, transporting the family into an panoply of migrant fears (most of which are better represented in Terrence Malick’s The New World). Then settles in the daily grind of settlement life: the crops are failing, food is dwindling, and the bleak grayness of winter looms like a specter.


The film looks really sharp, with a number of well-shot reaction close ups that amplify the horror scenes. Eggers clearly paid attention when watching his Kubrick, borrowing the atonal wailing chorus of 2001: A Space Odyssey to supplant diagetic sound as characters encounter their worst fears. There are not many traditional jump scenes, the director instead focusing on creating an uneasy vibe that matches the strangeness of the archaic speech patterns and bizarre religious incantations (I find Puritans to be an inherently creepy set– nothing sets up a suspense film like tightly-wound fanatics). Likewise, Eggers really brings out the horror of the natural world, whether through a dead animal or the numerous ways that nature is dispassionately at odds with our survival.

All that being said, the film fails to deliver on any real subtext. Each of the characters had a particular sin that they were punished for: pride, wrath, lust, etc. Had the punishments matched the crime in more instances, I would have seen the subtext: the devil and hell are real and we are all punished accordingly for our mortal sins (though I might have slammed the film for being too obvious then). Another possible outlet was the concept of original sin, which is certainly touched upon in the film, but slowly fades away as the film progresses.

The devil certainly assumes the role of nature run roughshod over these suffering settlers, yet I can’t help but find the representations to be painfully obvious. A witch that presents as a “secret, black, and midnight hag,” skittering around the woods with her familiars, doesn’t do much in terms of bringing something exciting to the genre. Neither do the sometimes obvious representations (the devil as a goat, the so called “devil’s book” as a literal book, etc.). The period settings are very of-the-period, and the gross outs are super gross, and it’s not exactly as if the plot beats were telegraphed; it’s just that everything I expected to happen eventually happened ten minutes later. There were no “left turns” or “curve balls” or whatever you want to call them. It’s a damned shame the film didn’t come out in the fall around Halloween, when you could leave the theater to crisp air and barren trees instead of chattering birds and sprouting buds.

Perhaps my disappointment with this film rests with the fact that some of the best “dark woods as devil’s domain” films I can think of off the top of my head do something brand new with the genre: Evil Dead 2, Blair Witch Project, Cabin Fever, Cabin in the Woods. There’s more meta-level commentary on the genre in those films, and this film is sorely in need of some tongue-in-cheek moments to break up the grim Puritan vibe. It’s taken so seriously that there’s a title card at the end of the film slapping you in the face with the writer/director’s historical research.

My final verdict is that while this is a well-researched, well-shot, well-produced film that looks and sounds great, it really can’t breathe any life into the witch genre because, in the end, it champions utilitarian execution to the exclusion of insightful commentary on the genre. It feels like the gritty, modern, ultra-serious remake to a campy 1950’s thriller that doesn’t exist.

RT: 89%
AV: B+
IMDB: 7.4
Me: B-

Summer Film Roundup

Safety Not Guaranteed
Dir. Colin Trevorrow, 86 min., Netflix Instant

Strongly disguised as a romcom, this film rarely does much to approach the time travel genre other than assembling a motley crew full of personal regrets. I failed to buy in to the outsider magazine intern (Aubrey Plaza) finding anything in common with the Dwight-like time traveler (Jake Johnson). In the subplot, her chauvinistic (but secretly sensitive) boss and the Indian nerd intern (that, frankly and unfairly, stands in for every dork everywhere) have a debauched mentor/protege relationship in the frat boy sense, but that story line pans out with very few hijinks and a whole lot of the type of talk you expect to hear from your drunken uncle at the family picnic. *spoiler* WTF, the time machine works at the end?? So we were to believe that this was a serious time travel piece? What a disappointing ending.

AV Club: B
Dissolve: n/a
RT: 91%
me: C-


Only God Forgives
Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 90 min., Netflix Instant

It’s hard to comment too much on this director’s style, given that I only know him from this film (he directed the critical darling Drive [2011]), but he must have gone to the Kubrickian school when he was filming this piece: the slow panning shots with the jarring sound bursts, the monochrome lighting and color scheme (though supposedly he is colorblind, a difficulty I can somewhat identify with), the cuts to mid-range shots of actors in silent relief. The cinematography is great; if only, as A.A. Dowd points out, there were real characters in the film. Everyone is more of a description than a well-defined person. Ryan Gosling, as an emasculated, Oedipal drug dealer, barely even speaks let alone emotes. He’s more of a mannequin posing for the shot (except for one animated moment with his hooker “girlfriend”). The stoical nature of the characters and lack of facial expressions comes off like a Greek morality play (strongly suggested by the bleak title), but the film’s coldness leaves the viewer cold in turn towards the eventual resolution.

AV Club: C
Dissolve: 3/5
RT: 40%
me: C-


The Monuments Men
Dir. George Clooney, 118 min., Redbox

Clooney essentially presents us with “The Dime Store Ocean’s Eleven Crew Saves Art for the Rest of the Uncaring Idiots of the World Who Can’t Appreciate How Great it All Is.” So whereas I haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan (1998) in a few years, I could recount five or six of the main cast members defining characteristics (and maybe even the actor names as well). I just watched this film a couple of hours ago and I couldn’t tell you one damn thing about anyone but the top three stars (Clooney, Damon, and Murray), and even then I didn’t get much to recount. The dialogue apes Ocean’s and the mission, while interesting and important, would definitely be better covered by a PBS documentary than a film, as most of the action is spaced out and jumps from city to city.

Sadly, unless you have more than a passing interest in the history of that period and have taken an art history course as well (as the film provides scant discussions of art other than the Judeo-Christian lionizing of important icons), it seems more like a random race across unknown landscapes to save objects that we are told are very important, but can’t really appreciate on much more than a superficial level. One thing is clear: America has everyone’s best interest in mind and will preserve artworks from not only our own destructive impulses, but those of everyone else who can’t comprehend the magnificence of art. That may have been true, but the film strongly paints our country as the “last best hope for man on earth.”.

AV Club: C
Dissolve: 2/5
RT: 32%
me: D+

Well, that was a bunch or rotten onions. Hopefully the next crop tastes sweeter.

Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

escapeDir. Randy Moore, 90 min., Netflix Instant

“Well, pack the family and head on down to Disney World,” is not what you will be thinking after you watch this film. I find it amusing that my last entry (my 100th post, BTW) was about me complaining that critics made nothing into something, while this entry I feel like something was made into nothing.

Moore’s film focuses on the surrealist hallucinations of the protagonist, Jim (Roy Abramsohn), as he enacts middle-aged, libido-fueled fantasies whilst his nagging, child-obsessed wife Emily (Elena Shuber) stifles and emasculates him.

The real star of the film, according to critics, is Disney World itself, as the film was shot on location without permission from the cryo-frozen head of the man himself. While it is amusing to seem some childhood memories shot in psychedelic, deep-focus black and white, the film could have really taken place at any amusement park as they all have that creepy simulacra thing going on.

There’s another, more mundane layer to the film that deals directly with gender dynamics, parenthood, and the ways in which we all cope with stress. Each disturbed character, even though they are in the “happiest place on Earth,” comes off the rails in increasingly hostile and self-destructive ways as the film progresses. The film and place resemble a vortex, with the trajectory of all who are sucked in spiraling towards a personal nadir.

As a personal side note, I can remember seeing drunk people fighting at Disney World and being escorted off by security guards. I also remember the personal entitlement I felt as a child, feeling like the whole experience was mine. It seems a disgusting enterprise now, but I doubt I could communicate that to my six-year-old self. The nadir of the place is really for everyone who goes there (at least by the end of the trip), and I can’t really imagine anyone wanting to go back independent of having children who drag them back in.

I suspect there’s something to be said about the hedonistic, sociopathic nature of children here as well. They demand constant entertainment and attention out of adults. Jim, clearly on the last moments of tolerance at some points and preoccupied by the loss of his job, is left to fend for himself emotionally as his wife overcompensates for his increasing distance by doting on the children. There is something uncomfortably Oedipal as his young son locks him on the hotel balcony at the beginning of the film, then assumes Jim’s position in bed next to Emily with a disturbingly blank stare. Likewise, Jim gravitates towards two French girls (one conspicuously in braces), enacting his own inappropriate fantasy. Children, until they learn empathy, feel little more than need and anger, and we take them to a place that supposedly satiates the raging id. What then is left for the grown ups in this situation but perhaps to mirror the same behaviors: apparently drink and libido (Jim) and barely constrained aggression (Emily).

There is much more here to unpack than there ever could be in Leviathan, yet critics much preferred that film. The cinematography alone in this film is much more striking, and even though it sometimes plays like so many broken shards from a witch’s amulet, the whole is much more intriguing.

AV Club: B-
The Dissolve: 3.5/5
RT: 56%
me: B+

Eraserhead (1976)

There’s a scene in an episode of The Simpsons where Homer is watching Twin Peaks (also, directed by David Lynch) and he says, with inflection indicating he is making a profoundly intelligent comment, “I have no idea what’s going on.” That is roughly how I felt about Mr. Lynch’s Eraserhead.

I always wanted to take film classes as my elective, but my abortive attempt at Biology and my double major prevented me from doing so. Occasionally, I would cut class to go with Nicole to her film class, where the professor would let me watch what the film students watched. In that class I saw movies like Pink Flamingos (1972) and The Naked Kiss (1964), and Nicole introduced me to lots of other films that are too numerous to mention but expanded my limited knowledge of independent, cult film classics that are brain jarring.

I didn’t particularly like Eraserhead, not so much because, like Homer Simpson, I didn’t understand it completely, but more because it missed the mark in terms of my expectations of what it would be. I expect a movie, like a novel, or even a piece of short fiction, to create a world and transport me into that world. The world needn’t make sense, but I should feel like I am a part of it, or that I’ll never be a part of it. In this film, I couldn’t grasp the rules, and I wasn’t aware of the fact that there were no rules either. It had enough of the real interspersed to disrupt the surreal.

I have watched some great silent era films that toyed with the conventions of film making and employed creative techniques in order to dazzle, but I didn’t get the sense of that here. It’s a mood piece, at best, and at worst, a jumble of disjointed sequences that fail to connect.

Here’s what I can tell you that I liked about what I watched. Without a large knowledge base of film history, I’m guessing the brutally simplistic and unrelenting tonal soundtrack that builds to crescendos and creates a general uneasiness in the viewer was innovative at the time. What works for me is the juxtaposition of those sounds with lighthearted pipe organ pieces that will remind any Chicago reader of the pre-curtain performance experienced on a trip to the Music Box Theater.

I read on Wikipedia–and by the way, not to get all defensive, but I’ll assert my prerogative as a recreational reviewer in this context to use what I read on Wikipedia as a talking point in my analysis despite that fact that it’s a cop out for traditional film research. Anyway, I read on Wikipedia that Stanley Kubrick made the cast of The Shining (1980) watch Eraserhead to demonstrate the feel he wanted, and it doesn’t surprise me. There seems to me to be a give and take between the crescendo and the tonal punctuation sound methods used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (such as when the astronaut approaches Io in the light tunnel and the shot of the monolith at the foot of the bed, respectively) and Eraserhead; this give and take is further developed in the quick cuts paired with sharp tonal sounds in Eraserhead, which Kubrick also used in The Shining. Even if this is some crackpot analysis, the use of sound in Eraserhead certainly made a great pairing with the images.

To call this film a horror movie seemed at first to me over the top in the first thirty or so minutes. But looking at the jerky character movements (prefiguring the use of stop motion for the same effect) and the way that the sound, image, and lighting combine to sear imagery in your brain, it can’t be called anything else.

Technical prowess aside, the symbolism is paper thin, and I question if any images in this film are meant to have a meaning other than “this is some weird s*&t that I think will trip people out.” I had a professor who told me once that dreams in fiction shouldn’t make sense, and should have no meaning. Writers who include dream sequences often fail for use of overly symbolic interpretations that come off as desperate attempts to guide a character’s action by providing a convenient subliminal revelation in the form of a dream. However, if you interpret this film as a surreal nightmare of industrialization and the subtext for the dissolution of every fiber of civilization that holds rational meaning…you’d probably still be wrong.

The film has parts that must surely entice a film student, and I submit that this is a film student’s film, ripe for dissection of techniques and good for inspiring iconoclastic work. In terms of a Wednesday night Netflix watch, you might be hard pressed to make it through the first twenty minutes. If you do, beware, because I must have said in my head that I was turning it off every five minutes up until the credits, and you might want to psychologically prepare yourself for some unsettling imagery if you choose to stick it out through the end.

5/10: My vow to you: next time I see a woman with deformed cheeks singing and tap dancing in my radiator, I will definitely call a licensed repair worker immediately