Sundance Film Festival 2015: ‘Z for Zachariah’ and ‘The Witch’

Both The Witch and Z for Zachariah point to the terrifying uselessness of religion in the face of the wilderness.

Park City, Utah was founded about 165 years ago. Still, it’s pretty easy to imagine the early Mormon settlers making their way up through the mountains from Salt Lake City, with their wagons, cattle, and dreams of self-sufficiency finally coming to this plateau, nestled amongst a spread of dizzying mountains on all sides. You can picture those settlers here, before anything was built, huddled together against that first winter, looking up into a dark sky brilliantly pockmarked with stars. Whether you see that as a terror or a comfort depends on your personal context.

A couple of the movies in the early going of the Sundance Film Festival speak to this idea of extremity. Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah concerns a lone young woman, Ann (Margot Robbie), still living on her parents’ farm up in the mountains of West Virginia after some kind of nuclear catastrophe has apparently wiped out everyone else. She’s content to stay there and tend to her crops with her dog, right up until she comes across John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former government engineer with a murky past. The two forge a bond as they work to build up the farm, eventually intending to have a family.

This slow courtship goes well enough, until a third person appears. Caleb (Chris Pine), a hunky coal miner, threatens the delicate tendrils of civilization John and Ann are trying to establish. He helps them build a large wooden turbine so they can have electricity again, but the longer he stays, the more it becomes clear that he and Ann have a chemistry together. The elephant in the room, of course, is that John is black, a fact brings it up one night, hissing to Ann that he wouldn’t stand in their way if they wanted to “be white people together”.

The tension escalates until it bleeds inevitably into violence, but it is indeed a supremely depressing notion — and this from the director of previously divisive Sundance drama Compliance, which is hardly uplifting — that even if there are only three people left on the planet, two of them will end up wanting to kill one another.

The Witch (2015)

A different sort of extremity is prevalent in Robert Eggers’ unsettling 16th-century horror film, The Witch, which garnered lots of buzz in the first 24 hours of the Festival. A a proud religious patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), refuses to bend his beliefs to better serve the laws the community, to the point that his family is banished from their New England village. Forced to resettle several hours away by horseback, they work to set up home on a clearing edged with a line of looming trees. William, ramrod straight and overbearing, is anything but intimidated by their new surroundings at first: “We will conquer this wilderness!” he trumpets. “It will not consume us!”

Film: The Witch

Director: Robert Eggers

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Lucas Dawson, Ellie Grainger

Studio: A24

Year: 2015

Rated: R

US date: 2015-01-27 (Sundance Film Festival)

Website: http://www.sundance.org/projects/the-witch-c1ef65ab-4fce-45b5-9b7f-0db5e97da59b

Rating: 9

Initially, the choice seems fine for William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children. But when their baby suddenly vanishes while in the care of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), things deteriorate rapidly. They have no idea what’s become of him, though we do: He’s been whisked away by an elderly witch and used for ritual sacrifice. The tragedy is only the beginning of the family’s descent. Soon the crops fail, the goats start milking blood, the twins become obsessed with a Billy goat they call Black Phillip, and the eldest son (Harvey Scrimshaw) goes missing one morning, only to return later that night, naked and bloodied, seemingly possessed.

Despite its fantastical imagery, the film makes no bones about what is torturing the family. The evil here isn’t a stand-in for mental distress, as in, say, last year’s horror stunner The Babadook; rather, it’s the devil himself. Eggers claims to have based his story on numerous folktales, taking large swaths of the dialogue from existing writings of the time period, a device as effective as the flickering candlelight that barely illuminates the walls of their ramshackle house. It’s pretty clear why so many folk tales of the time involved the unspeakable horrors of what might happen to a family outside the comforting climbs and exacting legal codes of their tight-knit communities: If you didn’t conform to society’s by-laws, you were a sitting duck for the devil’s mischief.

Both The Witch and Z for Zachariah point to the terrifying uselessness of religion in the face of this sort of wilderness. It doesn’t help Ann from following her lusty heart as opposed to her pious brain, setting in motion the violence to come. It most certainly cannot save William or his family, despite his admission that he’s “infected with the filth of pride” and so put everyone he loves in such mortal danger. There is no respite, it seems, from our petty, vengeful nature, and no amount of devotion that can stave off the devil. Once the seeming outside world starts turning against William and his family, it is only a matter of time before the children begin calling each other, charges even William comes to accept in the face of the terror around him. In the end, be it our inhumanity or the devil’s handiwork, none of us can survive on our own.

RATING 6 / 10