Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Not Quite Recent Thoughts: Wandering Women

The near decade-old Netflix cue has a mind of its own now, spitting out discs like a randomized jukebox. The first movie reviewed here, Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, arrived because I’ve neglected to alter the queue, or I’ve forgotten about some late night, wine-fueled re-prioritization. In any and all cases, I congratulate myself for expediting the arrival of Varda’s Vagabond, because it has a more than a thematic resonance with Arnold’s American Honey. The subject matter of the wandering teenager is only as unique as the methodological approach of these filmmakers. Arnold, like Varda, found inspiration in a newspaper expose, traveled away from home to produce the work, and intuited that non-actors best served the story’s purposes. Both films uneasily occupy a space of relative social homogeneity so as to assure the viewers that they know what they are seeing. They (I mean “we”) don’t necessarily identify with the protagonists - it’s hard to argue that Varda’s or Arnold’s heroines would be the target demographic for the movie. Recall those befuddled reactions to the artsy montages of Spring Breakers, a film which is surely in the cultural milieu of Honey. I don’t want to lob accusations of snobbery. The entire point is the assumption of the common ground and shared world. We assume responsibility for living in the same world as our impoverished heroines. Varda’s studio promoted the sensational Sans toit ni loi (the French title) with billboards asking its customers directly: Est-que vous la prendriez dans votre voiture? Elle est mignonne, elle pue, et elle ne vous dira pas merci.

That thesis statement fits perfectly into Varda’s didactic filmography. Sans toit ni loi assembles a series of fairly pointed testimonies, beginning with one by Varda herself, meditating from behind the camera about Mona’s (our vagabond’s) origins.When Varda speculates that she “came from the sea” over an introductory shot of Mona emerging from a beach, it appears that Mona will become a romantic figure. The other characters that are “interviewed” by, we assume, an off-camera “Varda,” offer descriptions, many offhand judgments, but nothing quite as poetic. Mona, while socially apt and a quick wit, is supposed to be a forgettable person, whose sociopathic impulses keep her at more than arm’s length from anyone that begins to offer help or companionship. Essentially, Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire are here to briefly resurrect the precarious life our their protagonist, but to do nothing more her. As we know from the beginning that she will die, Mona certifies a horizon of social awareness only visible as long as she is untouchable.

Framing device aside, Varda cannot resist gleaning (hey, you knew it was coming) narrative details from her other characters, effectively producing a larger portrait of country life in 1980s France. Mona hooks up with fellow vagabonds in robberies, drunkenly bonds with an old, property-owning woman, is comically shunned away by a prostitute; an ex-philosopher turned farmer, seeing her plight, gives her some land which she refuses to tend. Even the crooks tend to mostly be polite. It’s all cordial until Mona begins her downward spiral of public drunkenness among thieves. Just as we are beginning to sense Mona’s impending death,Varda characteristically exploits the opportunity to document the outcasts’ rituals: they take printed photos away before customers can even exit the photo booth. The penultimate scene severely, horrifically, punishes Mona while also documenting a bizarre local tradition.

One of Varda’s talents lies in creating frames that I could only describe as sturdy. The camera doesn’t move a lot, and holds fast to a limited vocabulary with a true sense of purpose. Her dry visual style prioritizes the delivery of information, which is one of the ways the model of dialogic mockumentary works. It is not all as cool and intellectual as it sounds. However, the entire framing device might not work in our favor. It’s the ni loi part of the title that provokes criticism about Varda’s perspective. And while wonderfully performed, Mona is assumed carelessness is sometimes simply a narrative springboard and an excuse to move us further along in the story. It’s a thesis we will see in both of these films: that laws are for those with roofs. The pleasure of gazing at the immoral actions of the “less fortunate” perhaps overcomes the pleasure of withholding judgement. Or perhaps there’s a moralizing principle at work that Varda unabashedly embraces; after all, would not poverty be justified by the acknowledgement that it gives those suffering the freedoms of infantile pleasure? (the contrast with the prostitute, the virginal “emergence” from the sea, all point to Mona’s distinctly pre-genital sense of pleasure). The sympathy Varda might feel for Mona might be withheld by the very assumption that she is sans loi,  by her insistence on combining the flaneuse with slumming auteur.

Jump forward 30 years and even the vagabonds have access to Instagram. American Honey risks positing that we should, and could, see its characters through their fantasized images of themselves. It is full of things you might see on social media: dramatic sun flares, half-hidden landscapes, tight, narcissistic handhelds of social moments; you, a sophisticated consumer of visual culture, might be repulsed by Arnold’s insatiable appetite for the recurring scene of our hero capturing bugs and setting them free - nothing less than the work of a self-conceived Disney Princess, visually depleted by corporate color filters. But you would also miss, I think, a transitional gesture between the slumming Mona and our equally pugnacious, but less more glamorous Star.

You could say that every character in American Honey participates in self-fashioning at the expense of more antiquated modes of self-making. The band of young magazine salespersons that Star (Sasha Lane) joins in a sporadic flight from her impoverished “home” have a stage on which to describe themselves. This stage is a packed old church van or one of many overstuffed, gender-divided motel rooms across Middle America. It isn’t the most traditional stage. Yet, Arnold seems endlessly fascinated with the confidence these people have in their own personas. It’s a strange kind of narcissism that their pop playlist allows. In a crucial scene, Star reflects that no one has ever asked her what she wants from life. She approaches the question wistfully, like it is a refrain to a song someone else might be singing. And by the end of a long film that revels in being a long film, Star won’t have an answer to dictate.

For my part, it is clear that the length does more than simply lend  American Honey some artistic credibility. Nick Pinkerton is right in Reverse Shot when he calls out the hypocrisy of some critics when assessing the uses of runtimes. I am comfortably within that zone of hypocrisy, if only because I’m weary of the artistic credibility given to sadistic dramas like Spring Breakers, which, as I’ve noted, is in the cultural mix here. It’s not that I genuinely thought time with these characters got more pleasant the longer I spent with them. As the film goes on, Arnold piles on uncomfortable scene after uncomfortable scene. But the length does prevent any neat coming-of-age conclusion, or worse, its nihilistic reversal in severe punishment. Moreover, in the days of binge watching, it feels confusing to act like 2 ½ hours is a task, even though it is. I hope it suffices to at least nod at this befuddling contradiction.

Benign acts of lawlessness are the stuff of American Honey’s dreams. Our heroes aren’t Bonny and Clyde. Shia LeBeouf’s Jake, who wears the assured grin of a conman, seems dangerous, uncertain, but he proves to not be hiding much. He’s the paramour to the group’s leader, Krystal, who is often portrayed drunk and full of petty anger. Her vices are vulgar power mechanisms. I thought of Barbara Loden’s Wanda, or Malick’s Badlands when watching this, as each film contains the skeleton of the mythic Western outlaw tale, but spends their running times foregrounding banality and stifling even the awareness of their character’s desires. In 2016, Arnold can simply revoke the mythic pretense Harmony Korine somehow found necessary for his “pop poem.” It appears at an interesting time for realism and provides hope -- hope that the genre isn’t just there to be the yang to the overripe yen of a comic book, or thriller, or fantasy.

Such hope diminishes when thinking that, however dedicated Arnold is to her formal conceits, her film is still pitched at an extreme time in an extreme mode of life. The portraits of Southern and Middle American life do feel accurate despite the movie sharing Star's cynicism about them. Early on, Star and the camera relish protesting the hypocrisy of Christian culture. Later, the relationships get much more ambivalent. We get a portrait of Star’s poor “family” life and a parallel in a heroin addict’s house. We also find her at the house of upper-middle class and “working-class” men who have less-than-innocent intentions concerning her. Like Vagabond, as long as the spectator is tethered to Star, it rewards the social mobility of the camera. But American Honey even moreso leans on the side of harshly reproaching  our curiosity, with outbursts of violence and harassment unresolved.  To reiterate: each encounter Star has is profoundly disconcerting, uncomfortable.

The thought of extreme modes of life brings us to Certain Women, for Reichardt’s film is decidedly embedded within the center of this periphery: the normal. Even when Certain Women depicts jarring situations, like Fuller’s (Jared Harris) takeover of a government building, it is weighted by so many other facts of life. Dern’s Laura went to work that morning and expressed mild annoyance at seeing her stubborn, misogynist client. She’ll be at work the next day.

Reichardt has always been interested in one-track minds. Her works build hypnotic montages through characters who, while sometimes obsessed (Night Moves is an exception here), one could most radically describe as “mildly focused.” Her stroke of genius is to think monomania need not be presented in the traditional Hitchcockian modes of alarm - she favors long shots and broad compositions to which no point of view can be assigned. Meek’s Cutoff portrays its central purpose - a gradual movement westward - through a right-left motif in camera movement, a horizontalization of intentions that are normally aimed straight down the depth of field. The too-easy thesis is that Certain Women is all the more in line with her subversion of obsession because you get three of these incomplete narratives at once. It plays with our hope for paltry world pictures.

The concluding Kristen Stewart-Lily Gladstone segment fits most easily into the model. A woman wanders into a school classroom just as a young lawyer-in-training has begun her first session of school law course. It isn’t obviously sexual attraction that makes The Rancher (Gladstone, delivering across the board) approach her, take her to the local diner, and hear her half-complaints about working in the bottom of the white collar ladder. But Reichardt does beautifully direct that sharp conversion from anonymity to desperate interest in the faces of both her actors. Stewart is starting to turn recalcitrance into her signature trope. The way she pecks at a meal while looking towards the window, unsure about the stakes of friendship in a strange town, had me wondering how to seduce her. Gladstone’s unnamed Rancher, whose benign look of fascination imprints on the mind, goes through a wonderful process: of meeting someone, establishing a routine around them.
The first two acts are about the kind of alienation that the third act tries, and fails, to overcome. Take, proceeding backwards, Gina (Michelle Williams), the matriarch of a family built upon a construction company. She’s stuck playing “bad guy” while her husband can entertain her daughter more readily. Less than nothing occurs during her segment. She visits an old man to acquire some sandstone that, to her frustration, he’s offering her for free. More apt to talk to her husband, Gina becomes wrapped up in the ethics of an encounter that the two men, her husband and the old men, find agreeable. Demurring to take something for free, Gina leaves with a frustrated look.

We know from the first scene of the movie that Laura is having an affair with her husband (played in full teddy bear mode by James le Gros). No confrontation ensues. Fuller is the closest we get to a realized conflict, but event that is played as another task among a day replete with double-and-triple tasks for these women. After a nervous climax, in which Reichardt does finally pull a Hitchcockian lever, Certain Women shows our characters once again walking in and out the same doors, unable to see each other, unable to account for the damage done to them. Gina finds her usual spot to sneak a cigarette behind the van. She pours a cup of red wine. Ten feet away, there’s a pile of sandstone where a schoolhouse once stood. The pile is her's for free, after a long 40 years of not taking much for granted.

Vagabond: B
American Honey: B+/A-

Certain Women: A

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: To Catch a Thief (1955)

        Good afternoon to Nathaniel and everyone at The Film Experience. Welcome to this minimally-decorated, low-concept film blog that a longtime lurker and lover of film blogs has just begun. If you were wondering, my name is Will. Thanks for stopping by.

I've chosen what must be the longest take in To Catch a Thief for my best shot.

There's the first frame of it. It's a setup for Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) to explain how she has figured out that Cary Grant's character is the famous jewel thief John Robie and not the American tourist he has claimed to be. She will do this while serving up a picnic. To the accompaniment of a lovely projection of the Cannes shoreline, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant banter while eating. Grant seems to be a lot hungrier that Kelly. He's really going at that chicken!

 Hitchcock soberly stages a rather dull piece of exposition with a rather simple portrait of his character's lavish lifestyles  - a picnic in the hills of the Rivera. The blocking and the acting, however, emphasize the slightest amount of discomfort. Kelly, in the driver's seat, towers over Grant as the latter scurries about his seat at the bottom of the car. For all its simplicity, the arrangement is a joy to watch; the film, having fun with the tools it has been given, is expressing its character relationships and fulfilling the quota for its glamour shots. Finally, To Catch a Thief comes out at a time Hitchcock's career where Freudian sexuality over-determines just about every inch of the frame, We know exactly what they are chewing when they are chewing those pieces of dark meat.

There also seemed to be some mixed signals in the direction that result in hilarious moments where Grant, denied first place in the salt shaker line, seems genuinely upset. That's him, holding up his chicken thigh while Kelly ignores him.

And he's just kind of amused.

Something about the way that big piece of chicken flesh is at the very front of the frame is infinitely amusing to me. Kelly, a more discreet diner (and lover!), does chomp down a few times. I'll close this post with a still of her ruminating.

And that, dear readers, is To Catch a Thief. See you next week!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Can't Help Falling in Love with 2

For every statement written about the unoriginality of The Conjuring 2’s beats, there is one singular, creaky step to be signposted that has led us to the best American  horror movie of the year thus far. One is 70s horror in all its thematic richness: not simply the dimly-lit rooms, but the Catholicism and the enormous melancholia for a lost family. Another is the zeitgeist of the jump scare. Another series of steps are all the plot contrivances obliged to the Saw series that Wan birthed over a decade ago, those contrivances that have made contemporary horror movies some of the most asinine whodunits in cinematic history. And a final step should be given to the digital camera and all the impossible movements and edits it can deliver. The so-called unoriginality of The Conjuring 2 does not depreciate the singularity of our viewing experience, as no other time period could have given the same sensations.
It’s the odd combination of the first and third steps that is the most shaky. The Conjuring took a case of the Amityville ghost hunters before their most famous one, and our second film takes place after it. We find this out with a recreation of the events of The Amityville Horror. The beginning also serves as the sequel’s “Annabelle” sequence insomuch as it spookily re-introduces our ghost hunters before we pay (almost) exclusive attention to the poltergeist of Enfield, England. Given the atrociousness of the Annabelle spinoff, and general concerns about over-serialization, there is much to worry about in this act of worldbuilding. The Conjuring 2 haplessly invents a demonological ur-structure it can only support by distracting us from the film at hand. Miraculously, it doesn’t fall into the same pitfalls as the sequels (and third act) of Insidious because it quite pins this worldbuilding on the tail of its characters. It shares a desire with The Exorcist to show the spiritual exhaustion of its characters at the face of unnamed evil. Vera Farmiga looks exasperated from the first frame onward and she’s supposed to be the one saving the day. Patrick Wilson exudes the false confidence of someone who can’t bear to see his stronger-willed wife go through another breakdown. These two strong performances, accompanied by the precocious turns of Madison Wolfe, give the entire narrative unsuspected emotional depth. Repetition isn’t even an issue here; even as the film achieves its goal of laboring us with relentless dread, a number of character beats act through many stages of grief. We see hope, suspicion, and fear in their eyes.   

The great news is that the excretable parts of the film’s outrageous 133 minute runtime all fall on the top half. The final, laughably bad piece of exposition is a montage that delivers us straight into late 70s London to the tune of “London, Calling” for about 30 seconds, as if it knew we all had better things to do that go for a bunch of low-budget period stereotypes. The introduction of the house instead opts for a Fincheresque digital tracking tour-de-force. We spend most of the film in this working class house - a rare treat for a genre mostly stuck in rural middle-class demi-mansions. Wan clearly knows how to make the space work with a variety of lighting options, camera movements, and blocking acrobatics that can surprise. That we’ve seen some of these tricks in his other films doesn’t distract from the unsettlingly mobile camera in some of these early scenes. I’m still drawn to the first night of scares for the Hodgson family, which works so well because seems like it will never end. By alternating between the boys and the girls’ experiences, Wan lets the scares brood for a good 20 minutes. His preferred method in this movie consists of a long take in a  dark room or hallway, filmed with an indeterminate depth of field.  We remember the agonizing stillness of these frames moreso than the ghost who makes himself partially known at the end of a sequence.

What is admirable about The Conjuring 2 lasts in the memory much longer that what could have been better. It is difficult to argue that, zeitgeist and all, this isn’t the perfect version of itself. All the aforementioned elements that make up this film are relatively balanced, from beginning to end - a character beat never feels egregious, nor does a long-take scare sequence. If we can keep replicating the giddy joy that this film, in being so confident and creative, produces, then maybe we do have a horror renaissance in (surprise!) mainstream cinema.

Grade: B+

Friday, June 17, 2016

I Only Have Eyes For You

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015?)

The most intriguing, if not the only, experiment in The Lobster is the one carried out by the film’s dedicated and celebrity-heavy team of actors. The film’s tweaks to reality have already given ample room for critical commentary on the subject of monogamy, marriage, and post-modern narcissism. Atop this narrative is the conceit that no character should act as if this reality were an alteration of any basic human condition. The rules are just given, no behavior suggests otherwise, and ground from which any judgement could be made is, consequently, shaky. A generous amount of beats have fun with this experiment: Olivia Coleman’s character claims Derick’s choice of animal metamorphosis is “excellent,” like it’s a dish on a menu; a person who is said to have “no feelings at all” conforms to the description with violent perfection. All the actors behave with a bizarre, unspoken unity of knowledge.
It is a commendable feat to act in a world that has been knocked  just slightly off-kilter. The Lobster doesn’t necessarily take place in the future, but it does borrow a little from sci-fi for the sake of one central piece of technology. One is pretty much obliged, despite the lack of traditional bureaucratic accoutrements, to call this environment “Kafkaesque.” Derick (Colin Farrell) has recently divorced his wife and comes to a country resort hotel so that he can be paired up within the required 45 day limit, after which he will be transformed “into an animal of his choice.” Lanthimos draws out a lot of straightforward humor from the entire scenario of life-and-death being played out through leisure activities that are very familiar  to nursing home patients, excepting the nightly excursion outside the hotel where all the residents, armed with tranquilizer guns, hunt for the escaped “loners” (one captured loner adds a day to your stay). Midway through, the film dips into a more morbid corner and stops allowing purely “fun” black humor seep through the cracks. And, even though you might expect it to peter out in contemplation, the film ends on a tense note.
If Lanthimos sends us out of this film with visions of Oedipus, he does so in order to reconcile the glaring contradictions that the central love story presents to the viewer.It turns out that Loners have their own strict rules about the single life that are broken at great, great cost. So the film is set up to engage two pillars of a familiar dialectic: on the one hand, oppressive coupling, on the other, an uncoupling so conscious that it becomes its own headphone-wearing prison. Unfortunately, the story speeds right into the introduction of Rachel Weisz’s love interest character (she really isn’t anything else). It isn’t as if Lanthimos doesn’t know how to make his characters tick with each other; we are afraid for these lovers in peril, but scenes of tension are interspersed with those that go straight for the sentiment of “indie romance.” The latter feel wildly out of place. I’m not convinced the world can present a  solution to its problems in the form of its first target institution. The final scene, which I’ve been trying to discuss without spoilers for a while now, sort of gives a quick fix to this problem by twisting the love plot into the revelation of one final, subtly articulated psychological norm. The difficult path The Lobster takes is trying to double-team us with a conceptual fact and a character moment at once. It’s something that many “masters” of the form have done (I’m thinking of Kubrick moreso than Lynch, Hitchcock moreso than Kaufman, though Kaufman’s weaker stuff works this way), it’s hard to pull off, and I don’t know if I like that strategy anyway. It smacks of pretentious commitment to doing too much in one movie. All the same, the idea that attachments in this world are rigidly ingrained through the sharing of a single “flaw” is a very interesting take on the whole Oedipus complex and the dark side of narcissism.
It’s the events leading up to this - the haplessly inevitable love story, the cruel lonerism of the jungle - that reward even as they expose the holes in Lanthimos’ plot.  When we’re in the hotel, the images and editing feel unsure about how disoriented they want to make us. I understand that the late capitalist banality of the hotel was the point, but I feel as if more interesting images could have been drawn from it. Or perhaps I was distracted by the abundance of celebrities: seeing Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw in one frame, all while on constant lookout for a face to match Rachel Weisz’s narration, makes the film feel a bit overstuffed. Farrell, whose character has the most to do, is the best thing happening in this movie. He has the most to do, granted, but he goes above and beyond the call of duty.  And I want to give Lea Seydoux credit for playing the reverse, sadistic side of Olivia Colman’s excellent bureaucrat; she knows how to wear an evil turtleneck like the best bond villain.
I’m not fully convinced that The Lobster has as significant a target as it thinks it does. All these things that happen must be significant, but the film analyzes to the point that it can’t put any pieces together, despite some desperate attempts at its conclusion, in this messy comedy of remarriage. Some critics of this movie more or less sentence it detention for having a bad attitude. I don’t think the coldness is the problem here,  as the actors really throw life into the comedy, but the eagerness to take something apart without explaining what it was in the first place. Is that my job? Because that’s tiring.


Monday, March 14, 2016

MUBI Capsules, Forecast

Starting a blog is a difficult task that demands the writer make up his own rhythm. I haven't found that yet, so I'm going to dole out some very very brief assessments of films I've seen recently. The great thing about Mubi is the completely unjustifiable character limit. The bad thing is that it results in some very disingenuous, clipped sentences (below, I write: "Good acting"). For that reason and many others,  I don't want to use this blog as a clipboard for my Mubi profile (I'm easy to find, guys!). Superego is rap rap rapping at the door, though, and demanding content. 

Also, in celebration of the re-release of Kelly Reichardt's River of Grass, I've re-watched all of her movies. Expect a long piece that tries to cover that ground. Slowly. Moving from right-to-left. 

Finally, I'm seducing my boyfriend through a casual Charlotte Rampling retrospective. It's working. Two posts below, you can find a longer-form take on 45 Years, which I think holds up against many of her best movies. Hell, it might even be her best. 

New Movies:

Hail, Caeser! (J. and E. Coen, 2016): In which the messianism of Hollywood is capable of relieving both the protestant work ethic and cultural marxism. More sound than fury, but committed to the incoherent perspective of the movie executive, which I never thought needed more treatment until now. Performances are all top notch, perhaps Swinton's character was very useless. This is a weird, rare treat wherein the "lite" Coens coincides with the heavy. B+

Something "Old"

Possession (Zulawski, 1981): No movie is deranged in quite the same way that Possession is deranged. Pulls out the rug from under you so many times, there's no pointing out a "key conflict." A dance with the more sinister powers of life. Wide-angled derangement, tugging at the corners of gazes, emotions, transference. There's a limit to this kind of hermetic horror, but goddamn this reaches it and flaunts. A-

Sweetgrass (Barbash and Taylor, 2009):  I'm the target demo for this. Humans become characters about 30-50 minutes into the movie - our introduction is concerned with the noble sheep, the noises they make. Then it turns toward an anthropology, and ethnography, concerning the symbiotic relation between sheep, dog, horse, and man. Then, a final rite, a brief justification for why we may record this, or record things at all. B

Casual Charlotte Rampling Retrospective:

Lemming (Moll, 2005): The first act is light on its feet enough, with Rampling just storming in an making the whole drama look like her plaything. But then it turns into a game of "What if David Lynch was boring?" We have better things to do than watch the white walls of bougie people receive timid stains. Even the class politics would be forgivable if this were in any way a coherent thriller. It assumes its stakes, never earns them. C

Under the Sand (Ozon, 2000): In which Rampling shows that she only needs 30% of her face visible in order to out-act the world. But let's be honest - this is mostly an acting experiment. I would have loved to see it as a one-woman show. We have one fabulously-played character venturing out into the world with diminishing returns. What it can't say about the psyche could fill, and does fill, much better trauma dramas. B

The Night Porter (Cavani, 1974) Ya'll need to stop pretending that Criterion only releases masterpieces. A form of critique, probably caused and certainly bolstered by the Frankfurt school and French psychoanalysis, erupted in this period of art cinema. So, you get these very interesting takes on WWII that may not explain much beyond the aesthetic pleasures of totalitarianism. Still, that's point to make? Or this is rotten to the core. Good acting. B/B+

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Ways in VVitch

If our collective memory of the New England Witch Scare seems too swept up in moralizing against, well, groupthink moralizing, then here is a sort of anti-Crucible. Our family leaves the primordial American community at the start of The Witch. Not that the 6-person family fails to provide each character with multiple shadows, doubles, f(r)iends, enemies, and lovers. The decision to focus on the family is one among many that nestles our film in the comfortable couch of 70s art horror. Complaints about that cushioned hub follow below. But to begin, I would like to commend the conviction that Eggers and Co. solicit from their viewers. There is no doubting that our movie monster is real. And well-researched!  Thou know’st it, thou is nudg’d slightly toward that position in the bizarre piece of press kit material that slivers in just before the ending credits roll.
Did that help you? I’m sure Robert Eggers, our first time director, had the approval of his Grad School adviser. I don’t know if I should read the performance of assiduous research as a sign of the indisputable singularity of the project when such a reading might prevent it from saying anything about our times (unless we’re part of the Church of Satan). Many excellent horror films do occur in a sort of vacuum. As previously stated, our heroes have left a New England township for unspecified reasons to forge their own life. The immediate work of survival is made all the more difficult by a sudden disappearance, which leads our heroes into the woods. Parallel problems follow, and the material desperation is not sublimated by, but is always an additional problem to, the terrifying figures at the edge of their puritanical mission.
You can tell that much of the film’s budget was directed toward a very handsome, which is to say pathetic and hideous, array of costumes, props, and wooden shacks. I’m happy about this. I’m happy that the last year of film making has been a year in which I could talk about the production design of a film for a good hour before even approaching its other merits. The frames are rife with beautiful, if unshowy, details. The titular character is designed with a great amount of subtlety (or, a small amount of money), all Shadow and Flesh. We’re in a post-Baroque age of costume design, here, where the realism of the costume matters more than anything, where people are no longer showing off modern flourishes to archaic clothing but purposefully wearing down their garments. One of my favorite moments of costume design comes at the end of the movie, when a certain character’s costume is all the more chilling in not being fully revealed. To not only invest in detail, but to resist the temptation to turn one’s film into a showroom for the admirable, difficult work of production design - that takes a level of restraint many directors don’t have by their third film, much less the first.
The Witch matches this perfectly simulated production design by lifting its dialogue directly from accounts of early colonial New England. I’m surprised by how effective this trick is. Surely, this is the sign of good direction. The actors delightfully chew about 60 percent of  their “thous” and “thees’ salads, partially because the film is so interested in moving their bodies about. It seems like the film wants to go all-out in its ambitious blocking, to throw around its characters in a delirium. What ends up happening is a lot of effort pushed to the periphery of just a few engaging set pieces. My favorite of these celebrates the early, close bond between the black-eyed young twins of the family and their male goat, Black Philip. How often do you see human-goat interaction in a film?
The more boring stuff almost entirely revolves around the echo chamber of tone that is The Witch’s portrait of its lead patriarch and matriarch. Here is where I finally leave a discussion of conceptual and technical details in order to describe how it actually feels to watch this movie. Since the film knows it isn’t a mainstream horror film, it opts for communicating its creepiness through the score’s set of ominous drones, of slow tracking shots that are all based upon the faith that we will equate barely illuminated wide shots of nature with dread. And such Kubrick fan service reaches its peak with a scene that so directly apes the Room 237 sequence of The Shining, I don’t see it as anything but an escape route so common American art house film making these days: if you can’t think of anything, just quote Kubrick. There’s a lot of anxiety hiding underneath the drones, a weird desire to make the aforementioned Shining and Barry Lyndon at the exact same time. And you start to notice how lacking this desire is in the non-development of the patriarch and matriarch characters, their complete inability to actually contribute to the film. Kubrick conjured what we all know now was genuine, end-of-your-life, horror in the faces of his actors. That sort of makes the whole austere shtick more excusable, in my eyes. The two oldest actors have a harder time believing themselves to be where they are. Anyway, I found the Kubrick allusions in Insidious: Chapter 3 much more entertaining.
In lieu of centralizing the father-mother duo, then, Eggers lays down most of the dramatic weight upon the just-pubescent brother-sister duo. This puts the central psychic conflict in a very singular (and, for what it’s worth, Hegelian) place; on the one hand, you have the formative ambiguity of the incest taboo, and, on the other, the tension of two members faced with the double-bind of familial loyalty and the need to move themselves beyond this family. It’s a long chain of substitutions; first, the family leaving the community for more puritanical goals, then, the adolescent’s (most explicitly the daughter’s) need to continue the puritanical legacy by selling themselves off to a new familial formation. The post-Crucible lever is effective; the whole historicist fabulation of witchery becomes intrinsic to the family’s submission of the woman. It’s hard to blame Anya Taylor Joy, who plays the impossibly virginal daughter, for being upstaged by Caleb Scrimshaw (what a fitting name!), who plays the brother and whose self-exorcism is easily the most ably acted scene in the entire film.
For all its confusion about actually getting to where it wants to be, The Witch is quickly memorable, meme-able, effective, and another refreshing sign of this horror revival. I hope we can get to a point where the genre doesn’t need to legitimize itself through allusions to the Great Masters, or through a forced sense of self-worth. If the former is Egger’s biggest weakness, the latter is, to my great chagrin, on display in the anti-horror film Goodnight Mommy. In times of  scarcity, the promise of something as simple as butter is enough. I’m willing to write off the problems of The Witch as “essential fatty oils.”

Grade: B