Review – The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion

The Witch starts out with a bang – including eerie opening credits that feature archival (real or fake, who knows?) images of human experiments and cruelty: witch hunts, the Holocaust, and more. As if that didn’t set the tone enough, you’re then greeted with a ridiculously bloody aftermath scene. There is blood splatter galore, but all seems quiet… men with bats catch their breath as something or someone twitches underneath a tarp. You quickly deduce this facility has been experimenting on children and that one of them has escaped.  A cold, cruel-seeming woman shrugs it off, saying the child won’t live long anyways… and a blood soaked girl runs through the night.

The Witch quickly shifts from the dark, bloody, and tension filled opening to a misty morning on a small farm. An older man spots the runaway sleeping and scoops her up, calling for his wife as he runs towards the house.

Eight years later and our runaway is now a teenager. The country town is bright and filled with lovable characters. The movie is now about a young lady who is trying to help her aging parents as they deal with financial and medical problems. Our teen witch seems perfectly ordinary, a nice young woman who jokes around with her best friend and cares for her parents. Yet there is tension in the air, built with small hints that something dreadful is just around the corner… her increasingly crippling headaches… her unexpected participation in a national singing contest… her mysterious abilities. You know something is about to happen… but what? When? What sort of experiments were they doing in that creepy building from the opening scene? What sort of powers does our innocent girl have…?

I’ve watched this three times now and each time I marvel at how well crafted this film is. The balance of action and humor, the dark scenes and the light ones. Like a Cohen Brothers movie, this film is packed with side characters and each one of them is memorable. They’re given small character quirks, signature elements that make them distinctive. And they’re all drawn together at the end for a high stakes showdown between multiple parties with multiple interests. It’s bloody and violent without being shockingly so – and the end is satisfying while also leaving you wanting more.

Rating: 5 stars. Go watch it.

More musings on The Witch including SPOILERS…. so you are warned….

What is the equivalent to a bromance? For girls? Cause this movie has the best female friendship I’ve seen in a long, long while. Our witch’s best friend is the daughter of a policeman, brash and confident, genuine and lovable. She’s not afraid to call out her best friend of rule breaking and her best friend isn’t scared to stand up to her either. They’re an adorable duo – one loud and boisterous, the other more calm and timid. You can feel how much these two rely on each other and support one another, and their friendship seems steeped in years of familiarity.

There were two key elements to this friendship that established some of the themes of the film. One was the hot pink roller. The cop’s daughter was more conscious of her appearance, wearing lipstick and keeping up with pop culture, whereas her witchy friend with barely brushed hair was the one people referred to as pretty. The other thematic element was how often our roller girl had to slow down for her witchy friend. She was always taking her backpack for her, waiting while her friend caught her breath. Without being told, we get the impression the roller girl is more tuned in to modern culture, more energetic and stronger than the witch – and we also understand that though roller girl tries harder, the witchy girl is naturally ahead and more valued (for her brains and her beauty).

I think there is always an aspect of balancing and subtle competition with young friendships. It’s only natural. Those are the years in which you are assessing your own place in the world and figuring out what you will focus on in the future, what you will offer and develop in order to thrive. I particularly appreciated that the movie showed how girls compete almost subconsciously. Too easily we are given the tropes of girls being mean and vindictive, or slyly cutting each other down in order to raise themselves higher. But more often than not, competition is just subconscious assessment. A young girl can recognize she is stronger than another, or not observed to be as attractive as another, without malice or ill will. There may be some annoyance at yourself or society, but it doesn’t usually produce spite.

On the flip side to the girls there were the “other” young folks. The nameless youth of the experimental program who all worked together for whatever evil power controlled them. Two characters, in particular, were focused on: The boy who first seeks out our witch and the only girl in the mix.

These characters were extremely fun to watch. As a banded team, they were almost like anime characters – complete with quickly recognizable physical traits (the curly haired boy, the boy with the pony tail, the girl with straight cut bangs, and so on). The two at the front, the boy and girl, were also given easily recognizable character traits. The boy’s finicky demeanor, his constant chewing on his fingers – the girl’s gum smacking and lollipop munching with her curled lip and blood covered hands. These additional quirks really made these nameless characters jump to life on the screen.

I watched this with a friend who doesn’t watch a lot of Korean cinema and told her that if a character smokes or obviously chews gum, it is usually a sign they are the villains… or badasses.

The other two characters I enjoyed where the top baddies – the brain doctor lady and the first edition experiment guy. Their obvious love/hate relationship was dynamic and it wasn’t any great stretch of the imagination to think one would easily double cross the other if given the opportunity.

I like that they didn’t over-explain the experiments in the film. They just mucked around with brains and genetics. We’re given a quick backflash to some laboratory scenes and that’s enough, really. They didn’t need to tie it to a specific government or military or war or corporation. Sometimes I feel movies bog themselves down in the details, attempting to be credible or scientifically sound. This film just rubber stamped itself Mad Science and moved on with the plot.

Our brain doctor lady was brilliant as the heartless mad scientist who saw her experiments as tools and not people. I particularly enjoyed the scene at her penthouse home where she’s lounging on a giant white couch like a goddess surveying the world below. Even though our henchman guy was also in the scene, and also seated, she still seemed above him. The woman exuded power and bad humor. Not to mention a collection of killer suits and amazing hair.

The last compliment I will give this film is for it’s action sequences.

PACING IS EVERYTHING WITH ACTION.

This simple fact is often forgotten in modern American action films.  Quick cuts, stylized camera moves, and mind boggling movement are favored over… you know… narrative structure. If you can’t follow the action scene in your head, it’s not a good action scene. You should know who is doing what at all times.

You can have all kinds of fancy editing and camera angles and insane stunts and still follow a narrative. The Witch does this with aplomb.

I mean… seriously… the action sequences are awesome.

I will also add that the use of powers or superhuman strength is also extremely well done in this movie. It’s very integrated into the characters behavior. Their use of telekinesis or super strength feels natural. And the action sequences remember to pause occasionally and let the scene sink in.

I just loved it.

I am eagerly awaiting the sequel to this film, even though I have no idea where it’s going. I’m not sure I even care, really. If it has the same writer and director, it should be a bunch of fun.

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