That Robert Eggers’s Sundance hit The Witch is slotted in Special Presentations rather than Midnight Madness is a testament to the film’s ambition. Sidestepping the crowd-pleasing, antic energy common to the selections featured in the latter program at the Toronto International Film Festival, Eggers’s film is altogether stranger and more challenging to conventional genre tastes. Set among a family of Puritan exiles in the wilderness of unmolested New England as strange and ominous forces beset them, The Witch often looks more like historical realism than horror.
Deepening that sense of verisimilitude, Eggers draws much of the dialogue from 17th-century documents, though this has the tendency to make the characters sound more as if they’re reciting diary entries at one another than conversing. Thankfully, the dialogue counts for little in the film, which instead devotes most of its energy to maintaining a constant sense of dread in the dense thickets of woods that surround the family. The sound design is exceptional: brittle wind rustling through stripped branches connotes the terror of the family’s complete isolation, the fright only exceeded by the soft but unmistakable crunch of dead leaves and twigs that signals an intruder.
Lighting also generates tension, with pallid gray skies that leave exteriors awash in sunless misery as well as the domestic horror lit by candles. In the film’s greatest shot, a static view of the family’s dinner table assigns a hierarchy of authority through the use of shadow, with only the prideful patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), fully illuminated. (Significantly, it’s William’s wife, played by Kate Dickie, who’s totally silhouetted, not any of their children.)
At times, however, this minimalist chill becomes too diffuse for its own good and lets the slack out of a film that cannot afford to loosen for a second. Furthermore, by dispensing of the usual ambiguities of period witch movies, the film mangles its occasional attempts to leverage that mystery, and the sexual-political undertones inherent to witches, with half-executed sub-plots—such as the effect that Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) puberty has on her younger brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw).
Nonetheless, whenever the atmosphere starts to flag, the film is buoyed by the acting, be it in the sanctimony Ineson lets slowly creep into his orthodox father or Dickie doubling down on the role she played on Game of Thrones as a mother driven to madness by grief and fear, so ragged in her ferocity that she lends immediacy to the distanced dialogue. The children are uniformly great as well: Taylor-Joy finds the through line of defensiveness in a scattershot part while Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger unsettle as a pair of bonneted twins who tease and mock with a dark energy that could be attributed just as easily to normal toddler behavior as it could to demonic corruption. Scrimshaw even manages to put in one of the best possession performances in ages with a scene that eschews all the wracked theatrics and vocal warps endemic to such acting, instead delivering a frank, terrifying depiction of pain and bewilderment that epitomizes how the film trades easy jump scares for lingering despair.
If Eggers announces himself as a name to watch, Every Thing Will Be Fine nearly drives the final nail into the coffin of the formerly invigorating Wim Wenders. A nominally straightforward drama about the reverberating sense of guilt and loss that emanates from writer Tomas Eldan (James Franco) accidentally running over a child, the film is rendered insensible by bizarre and meaningless structural upheavals and thin connective tissue. Every time the film seems as if it’s about to develop one of its vague tendrils of drama, the action moves forward a few years and finds every existential question mostly settled, or at least sufficiently unperturbed. Instead of tracking the long-term effects of a tragedy, this narrative approach consistently pulls focus onto the bare essentials, that of Eldan’s career taking off while the dead boy’s mother, Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg), sees her fortunes crumble.
The premise, of a terrible event unleavened by the easy out of someone being at fault, should be prime fodder for Wenders’s brand of poetic regret. But the director has been running on fumes for years now, and the paucity of his ideas is encoded into every clumsy frame of his dull 3D compositions, which only reveal his keenness of imagination when regarding still life. That tendency toward visual stasis compounds the narrative’s arrested development, and it thwarts the actors, if they can be said to be trying at all. Franco, in particular, makes even his recent standards of blasé indifference look animated by comparison, never engaging with Eldan’s guilt or his attempts as the years go by to suppress and ignore it.
In fairness to the cast, even the most committed actor would struggle to make something out of the film’s script, which is filled with pointless longueurs that drag out the drama while incorporating dialogue that overcompensates for these empty spaces by rushing to conclusions. This has the effect of forcing the actors to flatly announce their character arcs, as when Eldan’s girlfriend, Sara (Rachel McAdams), attempts to console him over the accident and he abruptly diagnoses their relationship as doomed because, “I just want to write. You want kids, I don’t.” Later, after the pair breaks up and Eldan marries publishing staffer Ann (Marie-Josée Croze), they too incongruously match context with payoff when Ann calls out her husband’s coldness not in relation to their many relationship troubles, but his total calm in assisting the victims of a carnival accident. It’s as if the entire script consisted of placeholder text connoting vague tone and summarized human conflict that someone mistook for a proper draft.
Only one scene of the film suggests any of Wenders’s erstwhile skill: a telephone conversation between Eldan and Kate that uses superimpositions and dissolves to elegantly bridge the two pained individuals’ sense of physical space to let their consolations bridge their emotional divide as well. Though it may still seem like a mere shadow of the same director who produced a scene like the confrontation of the estranged couple in Paris, Texas, this is still identifiably Wenders. For a few minutes, the film finds a sense of purpose and identity, but that only makes the remaining running time an even more tragic reminder of how far its maker has fallen.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10—20.