SXSW: WITCH HUNT (2021)

Witch Hunt 2021.jpg

Studio:      Kodiak Pictures
Director:    Elle Callahan
Writer:      Elle Callahan
Producer:  Eric B. Fleischman, Maurice Fadida
Stars:     Gideon Adlon, Abigail Cowen, Lulu Antariksa, Anna Grace Barlow, Natasha Liu, Ashley Bell, Echo Campbell, Christian Carmago, Elizabeth Mitchell

Review Score:

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Summary:

In a modern America where practicing magic is a crime, a conflicted teenager questions the prejudice against witches while helping two fugitives cross the border into Mexico.


Synopsis:     

Review:

Debates over what is or isn¡¯t a horror movie don¡¯t need to exist. If something includes a murder or a monster, it probably qualifies as horror, although a broader definition absolutely encompasses almost anything involving death, the supernatural, or any form of fright that can be considered thematically terrifying.

Horror films frequently fall into multiple genres anyway. Somebody can argue all they want that ¡°The Silence of the Lambs¡± is ¡°actually¡± a ¡°psychological thriller.¡± Sure, whatever. After that person gets done pompously puffing through upturned nostrils, the story where a killer cannibal helps a haunted FBI agent hunt a skin suit-wearing serial murderer will unquestionably still be a horror movie too.

One of several ways ¡°Witch Hunt¡± can be categorized is as a horror movie. It¡¯s more than that though. Writer/director Elle Callahan¡¯s sophomore feature is also a family drama, coming-of-age character study, and current events commentary. Anyone who sees that it features witchcraft and goes in expecting cackling crones on broomsticks, goth girls, or fiery bolts of hex magic will find out fast the film doesn¡¯t play in those sandboxes. ¡°Witch Hunt¡± is horror, but it¡¯s not ¡°that¡± kind of horror.

The Constitution¡¯s 11th amendment makes practicing magic illegal in ¡°Witch Hunt¡¯s¡± present-day America. Even though genetics give them their powers through no fault of their own, anyone discovered to be a witch is executed by the Bureau of Witchcraft Investigation. Society subsequently ostracizes the families of those women, with California¡¯s Prop 6 threatening to restrict rights by treating relatives like unwanted aliens too.

If they can get through the wall, one way to escape persecution is to seek asylum in Mexico. Widow Martha Goode is sympathetic to that cause. She runs an ¡®Underground Railroad¡¯ stop behind hidden walls in her Southern California home. This creates conflict for Martha¡¯s teen daughter Claire. Claire isn¡¯t sure mom should be risking their lives to help supposed criminals cross the border. She¡¯d rather keep up xenophobic appearances by parroting her friends who bigotedly bully redheads.

(¡°Witch Hunt¡± seemingly suggests its witches tend to be gingers, yet not all of them are? It¡¯s one of the confusing points about the setup¡¯s undercooked background mythology that isn¡¯t fully fleshed out with a clear explanation.)

Claire has her perspective challenged when Martha temporarily takes in two sisters. Shae and Fiona, the latter of whom is Claire¡¯s age, watched their mother burn at the stake. Now they hide in Claire¡¯s house until it¡¯s their turn to be transported. What no one knows is their coyote isn¡¯t coming, because a determined detective made that man disappear. With the sisters caught in limbo, Claire gets cornered into developing a friendship she didn¡¯t expect. Through her bond with Fiona, Claire reconsiders the politics of prejudice, and discovers a startling secret about her personal identity in the process.

It doesn¡¯t take a savant to see the subtext. In ¡°Witch Hunt¡¯s¡± allegory, witches are surrogates for immigrants, minorities, Muslims, homosexuals, or any persecuted group unfairly suffering from institutionalized hatred in modern society, specifically in post-2016 America. Plug in whichever parallel you prefer. Then watch ¡°Witch Hunt¡± shine a harsh light on reality through a fantasy fable that asks sexists and segregationists, ¡°Now can you see the cruelly hysteric absurdity of dangerously isolationist ideologies?¡±

They can¡¯t and they won¡¯t, of course. ¡°Witch Hunt¡¯s¡± female-forward roster, where men appear exclusively in abusive positions of power, and integral use of a Mexican border wall, which cleverly flips the desired direction of travel, ensure that those who most need to reconcile with the movie¡¯s plea for open-minded enlightenment have baked-in excuses for dismissing the film out of hand as woke leftist propaganda.

¡°Witch Hunt¡± doesn¡¯t just mean well. It¡¯s also made well. There¡¯s nothing the least bit ostentatious in the simple production design. From Martha¡¯s hillside house with hidden walls to the high school gymnasium¡¯s swimming pool, sets and locations create scope and spaces that accent modest visual values. With accomplished actress Elizabeth Mitchell providing Martha¡¯s maternal self-sacrifice while ¡°Dexter¡¯s¡± Christian Carmago seethes tightly-coiled villainy as a dauntless BWI agent, performances are precisely pitched according to each role¡¯s requirements.

Although everyone does what they¡¯re supposed to both in front of and behind the camera, ¡°Witch Hunt¡± unfortunately doesn¡¯t hit the heart or the head as hard as it has to in order to resonate the way it wants. There isn¡¯t any one outstanding culprit to point at and conclusively say, ¡°that doesn¡¯t work.¡± Nor is there any one inarguably underwhelming element that would significantly alter the film ¡°if only it had been changed.¡± There¡¯s just an overall sense of an x-factor¡¯s absence, and things ring hollow as a result.

By nature, ¡°Witch Hunt¡± tells a dour tale that doesn¡¯t run on action, speed, or spectacle. Claire¡¯s side of the story stays grounded in dealing with catty classmates, doing online research for a witchcraft writing assignment, moping around her mother, and other typical teenage tribulations. Moody melodrama means to be a big part of the movie¡¯s makeup, except ordinary woes and everyday conversations drag on momentum. Scattered nightmares and flashes of a weird witch possibly living in the house¡¯s walls (another entity whose inclusion is partly opaque ¨C is she supposed to be Fiona and Shae¡¯s dead mother?) don¡¯t possess enough pop to buttress limited suspense.

It¡¯s a little odd that for all the movies I¡¯ve unpacked over the years, I can¡¯t quite pin down what remedy would energize ¡°Witch Hunt¡± to coax it out of the sleepy bed it lies in. A couple of actresses receive notable billing despite playing negligible parts. Did script or final cut edits eliminate deeper impact from Claire¡¯s callous classmates, or from Ashley Bell, all of whom float in and then off the screen like barely noticed motes? I¡¯m not sure. An unidentifiable echo merely makes the film feel as light as a Lifetime MOW, which is a shame since the message it tries to impart carries more magnitude than any movie could ever completely capture.

Review Score: 55