Good horror movies make you jump. Great ones make you unable to move. And writer/director Robert Eggers’ feature-film debut The Witch may be as close to great as this decade’s horror movies have yet come – a mesmerizing, stomach-tightening descent into madness completely devoid of irony. Its trappings may portend a literal-minded take on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but the wickedness here is in no way theoretical or the product of mass (McCarthy-influenced) hysteria. Eggers’ ballsy achievement suggests, rather, that true evil can be an entity as real as those who believe in it, a physical presence conjured through excessive pride, fear, suspicion, lust, and, most critically, lack of faith. The Witch is a haunting experience, and the more you think about it, the more haunting it gets.
Opening in the colonial New England of 1630, the film finds a Puritan family – William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children – standing in judgment before a congregation of grim-faced locals. We never learn the exact nature of the offenses, although William’s contemptuous boasting about his personal Christian beliefs offers a hint, and the clan is quickly escorted out of town, with the patriarch determined to successfully farm an expanse of acreage alongside a faraway forest. (If the term “faraway forest” implies a tale preceded by “Once upon a time,” that’s intentional, as the opening credits reveal the movie’s full title to be The Witch: A New-England Folktale.)
It doesn’t take long, however, for William’s dream of an Edenic life – one completely isolated from the rest of the world – to turn into a nightmare. Crops won’t grow. Other food supplies prove scarce. The claustrophobic living quarters keep everyone on edge. Pubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) develops an unhealthy interest in his teen sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) begin acting up. The family’s animals – particularly a billy goat named Black Phillip – act up even worse. And somehow, during a friendly game of peek-a-boo with Thomasin, the family’s infant vanishes, presumably carried off into the woods that the children were warned never, ever to enter.
You might presume that Eggers would keep the baby’s disappearance a mystery, the better to build unease and dread about what forces, actual or imaginary, are plaguing the settlers. But that’s not what occurs. Instead, through a series of sickeningly suggestive images, we’re taken into the forest and shown just what happened to the child – a risky gamble that winds up paying enormous dividends. The perplexed Thomasin can only insist on her innocence, and rationalize that a wolf must have snagged the baby in the two seconds she had her eyes closed. For understandable reason, her family, and especially her traumatized mother, can’t believe her. And because we know the truth – or at least what we perceive as the truth – behind the event, the family’s increasing distrust of Thomasin grows progressively more harrowing as the clan is beset by other, equally insidious calamities. Eggers’ movie takes place roughly 30 years before the notorious Salem witch trials, but it underscores and somewhat explains the horrific religious paranoia of that era: In lieu of concrete answers, and with a seemingly vengeful God apparently unwilling to answer prayers, people blamed witchcraft. Cleverly, The Witch also upends our convictions about that era: Maybe those people weren’t wrong.
W.C. Fields is famously quoted as saying that no one should be forced to work with children or animals. Ironically, though, you can nearly always gauge directors’ talents based on their work with children and animals, and if that truism is to be trusted, Eggers may already be a phenomenally gifted filmmaker. With his intimidating basso profundo and unwavering intensity, Ineson is a sensationally charismatic presence, and Dickie’s tortured desperation bites at your nerves, her pained, pinched expression indicating a woman who might just be sad and mad enough to throw her eldest child on a pyre. But beyond Eggers himself, whose pacing and tableaux are unerringly fine, The Witch really belongs to its young actors: the luminously broken Taylor-Joy; the astoundingly bold and committed Scrimshaw; and Grainger and Dawson, whose twins-from-hell routine starts out engagingly obnoxious and turns positively terrifying.
Not quite as terrifying, though, as that inscrutable Black Phillip, who is granted some of the film’s creepiest closeups, gets a deserved share of the finale’s attention, and is responsible for at least two of the scariest and most unexpected shock effects not just of the movie, but the whole millennium. With its evocative compositions and Mark Korven’s diabolically insinuating score, one reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s tightly wound soundscape for There Will Be Blood, The Witch is like a protracted, thrillingly enjoyable panic attack – 90 minutes in which, for long periods, you might find it giddily difficult to breathe. Black Phillip allows you the opportunity to finally scream. In the greatest horror-flick manner, he’ll really get your goat.
If it’s the Lenten season, it must be time for another low-budget biblical saga at the cineplex, and the first (but not last) of 2016’s is director/co-writer Kevin Reynolds’ Risen, which covers the period from just before Christ’s crucifixion to his ascension into Heaven. (So, you know, the movie has a much happier ending than the one The Passion of the Christ gave us.) Every year, releases of this ilk arrive to grab some unearned shekels from the devout, while those of us in the position of reviewing them complain about their shallowness and tediousness and deathly lack of surprise. But – surprise! Not only is Risen not half-bad, it’s also been designed less as a pro-faith drama than a New Testament Agatha Christie mystery with Joseph Fiennes cast as a disbelieving Hercule Poirot, giving us a fresh perspective on this age-old story. Portraying a Roman centurian recruited to find out what happened to Jesus’ body and who may be responsible for his miraculous disappearance from the tomb, Fiennes, unfortunately, is a dullard, his somnolent performance suggesting a man struggling to stay awake through a 100-minute sermon. Yet it’s easy to forget about him thanks to the unexpected cleverness of the interrogation-room conceit, the pop-ups by so many terrific character actors (especially Peter Firth, Joe Manjón, Stephen Greif, Margaret Jackman, and Stephen Hagan as a hippie Bartholomew), and the legitimate joy of the climactic scenes that, for once, don’t play merely as pandering lip service. Risen is just as pious, and as frequently square, as you’d imagine. It’s also, however, routinely witty and thoughtful, and nowhere near the formulaic, good-for-you bummer that too many of its forebears have led us to expect. Talk about miracles.
Sadly, director Stephen Hopkins’ Jesse Owens bio-pic Race is exactly the movie I feared Risen would be: drearily presented, determinedly unthreatening, virtuous to a fault, and lacking even one scene that boasts a whiff of surprise. How does one tell the story of Owens’ staggering success in the 1936 Berlin Olympics – four gold medals earned, world records and prejudices shattered – and make it this excruciatingly dull? Principally, by not trusting your audience to handle tonal or thematic complexity, and giving them easily digestible stereotypes and hackneyed conversation in place of actual human beings and frank discussion. The best I can say about the film is that it could serve as an effective primer for kids previously unfamiliar with Owens’ legend, as Hopkins’ outing does touch on the political machinations and hateful bigotry that almost prevented the track star (played here by a dispiritingly one-note Stephan James) from competing either abroad or in America. But even those youths might find themselves bored by the lethargic pacing and repetitive nature of the “two steps forward, one step back” storytelling, with even typically reliable hams such as William Hurt and Jeremy Irons failing to rouse interest. (Only Jason Sudeikis, as Owens’ Ohio State coach and trusted ally, is allowed to grace the proceedings with some light poignancy and comic snap.) With Hopkins finally displaying a bit of filmmaking savvy in the unbroken take of Owens entering the Berlin stadium and preparing for the 100-meter dash, his latest is as bland and bluntly on-the-nose as its double-meaning title, and potentially fascinating subplots are left maddeningly unexplored. This movie geek, for example, would have welcomed more scenes involving the ethical and moral conundrums faced by documentarian Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houton) as she filmed 1938’s propagandizing Olympia. Yet I should hardly have been watching a tribute to a sports icon of color wishing for more about a German white lady. Race’s intentions, as they say, may have been noble, but Black History Month deserves better cinematic representatives than this.
THE LADY IN THE VAN
I’m not sure there’s any reason for a movie of The Lady in the Van to exist outside of the fact that leading Lady Maggie Smith exists. But could we possibly need another reason? Based on author Alan Bennett’s memoir that subsequently became a 1999 play (the West End production of which also starred Smith), director Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation concerns the 15-year period that Bennett let the elderly, homeless, and odoriferous Mary Shepherd live in his driveway, housed in one of several vehicles she covered with splotchy yellow paint. Bennett’s tale, which finds Bennett himself portrayed by Alex Jennings, makes pains to parallel the writer’s complicated relationships with Mary and with his own ailing mother (Gwen Taylor) – a narrative device that doesn’t have the emotional pull you want it to. Similarly, the idea of having “twin” Bennetts appear on-screen as dueling yin-and-yang figures is a literary conceit that doesn’t quite work in flesh-and-blood practice, and no one aside from the two leads is given more than one vaguely defined character trait. (As nice as it is to see Jim Broadbent not playing his typically jolly salt-of-the-earth type, his playing a dimensionless asshole doesn’t do him any favors, either.) But what’s the point in complaining? The Lady in the Van is nearly two hours of Maggie Smith in witheringly haughty, cantankerous, sardonic mode – a Dowager Countess with grubbier surroundings but equally caustic wit. Yet given license to over-act (and God knows her vocally supportive audience would allow it), Smith and her gently vicious bon mots never land at the expense of character. Her put-downs may, as always, be things of comic beauty, but the heartache and loneliness and fear in Mary’s eyes give them human scale, and keep you riveted with mysteries that Bennett’s script seems only half-interested in exploring. It’s by no means a great work; all told, Hytner’s achievement is roughly on a par with his previous Bennett adaptations The Madness of King George and The History Boys. But how can anyone begrudge The Lady in the Van as a celebration of 81-year-old star Maggie Smith? The movie doesn’t deserve a review so much as a parade.