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domingo, 13 de março de 2016

The Witch will leave you shaking with fear - review

A Puritan family is terrorised by religious fervour - or something else? - in Robert Eggers's profoundly unsettling 17th century horror
If you want to discover what it might feel like if your stomach independently decided to take up ashtanga yoga, The Witch is the film for you. Robert Eggers’ stunning debut feature is one of the scariest horror movies in years – and not the creep-up-and-prod-you kind of scary either, but a profound, unsettling dread that gnaws at your bones, and which comes back to find you in the dark. 
Set in the 17th century, and subtitled A New England Folk Tale, Eggers’ film follows a devout family plagued by strange and grisly happenings on the edge of a dark and tangled wood. In its opening scene, they are being drummed out of a religious commune on a charge of blasphemy – although the sneering rebukes launched by William (Ralph Ineson), the father, at the community elders, suggests he may just be too puritanical, even by Puritan standards
“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” William asks his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children, as they wend their way across ashen plains, in search of land to call their own. The answer he gives – “the Kingdom of God” – is a far cry from where they end up. They build a cottage, and plant corn, and raise goats, but somewhere in the trees behind their house, terrible things are afoot
To specify exactly what wouldn’t just spoil the fun – it would also set things in stone that Eggers’ film would rather remained in the ether, uncertain, and all the eerier for it. Are the horrific visions we see actual flesh-and-blood occurrences, or the conjurations of religious fervour?
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All of the family members are wracked by guilt over something: Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter, prayerfully confesses to having “played on the Sabbath” in secret, while Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the second-born, steals curious, shame-tinged glances at his older sister’s chest
To them, these frailties are nothing less than the Devil working on their mortal souls. “My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin and only to sin, and that continually,” recites Caleb while walking through the forest with his father, and you can tell he means every word. In a life this hardscrabble, supernatural significance can be read into every tragedy and slight.
But at the same time, what happens in the forest is too horribly specific to easily shake off. One sequence, which left me feeling physically sick with fear, involves a withered hand brushing like a branch across a baby’s drum-tight stomach, then a strange rite conducted in shadow, with a glimpse of something red and wet you tell yourself you didn’t see. Whether it’s real or not is almost beside the point. In every meaningful sense, it’s there
Profoundly unsettling: Anya Taylor Joy in The Witch
A star in the making: Anya Taylor Joy in The Witch
Eggers also stirs classical fairy-tale imagery into his bubbling cauldron – red cloaks, polished apples, a cottage in a tree – each of which appear in the film like livid blooms of colour on the straw-and-stone New England landscape. And he seasons it with a script written in the Biblical English of the period – some of it lifted verbatim from historical documents. It’s an affectation, but the language resonates perfectly with the unfolding drama, and your ears acclimatise in minutes.
It helps that the cast sell it with total commitment, from Dickie and Ineson (who’s unrecognisable as Chris Finch from The Office) to Taylor-Joy, a 19-year-old former ballet student from London who begins the film as an unknown and ends it a star.
Scrimshaw is also excellent, making Caleb uncertain and fearful of himself in that verge-of-puberty way, while Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson, the young twins who caper around the farmyard singing cheerfully about Black Phillip, the family goat, are frankly terrifying. 
Some scenes look as pitiless and stark as a Michael Haneke composition, others as lush with magic as a Jan Pieńkowski silhouette. The effect is supremely disquieting – not least in the film’s wild, divisive and (I think) exquisite finale – and it reflects the veins of anxiety running through the core The Witch, about women, children, spirituality and America’s founding myths.
These are not easy subjects to tackle, and horror is not an easy genre to get this right. But The Witch doesn’t stint on any of it. The film gives the Devil his due.

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