Festivals

SXSW 2021 Movie Review: Witch Hunt

In the movie Thelma and Louise, Louise quips “In the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she isn’t having any fun”. Witch Hunt the newest film by Elle Callahan uses the feminist anthems of Thelma and Louise as the centering force of her film. Which Hunt seeks to breath new life and magic into the Witch Hunt parable. In short there are lots of women in Witch Hunt who are both crying and having fun.

In a slightly alternate history where hating witches was adopted as the national pastime rather than an occasional happenstance Claire and her mother help young witches escape the United States to the north. Claire is not nearly as into the underground broomstick business as her mother and quickly comes to resent their two newest wards. Witches in this timeline all have red hair and America seems to be slipping into genocide in slow motion as new draconian laws prevent gingers from living any semblance of a normal life. As Claire’s world gets more complicated she has to define what liberation means to her.

Witch Hunt is a film about female empowerment. In fact all of the main characters are women and the film is not interested in elevating any of the bit male roles to something larger. The film is about women in this new America that feels eerily similar to our own.

While the movie makes reference to Thelma and Louise a couple hundred times it doesn’t have the same edge that the source material has and as a result it can sometimes feel like a softer movie. That being said the witch burning scenes used in the beginning and throughout the film as scene transitions are gnarly as hell. This softness can sometimes give a made for television patina to the film that seems to remove a bit of its urgency. Minus the witch burning scenes this movie would feel very comfortable showing up as part of the Halloween programming on Freeform. That in no way is a knock on the film. It is gateway horror at its finest and absolute best. Its subversive in that it feels perfectly at home on ABC but its themes are revolutionary.

These themes only come to life because of the spectacular performances by a cast who is intent on making the film special. Brooding Clair is captured remarkably by Gideon Adlon who seems to be channeling the perfect mix of adolescence and maturity. She doesn’t know what she wants but she is pretty certain it is not this. It is only through the relationships with the newest runaway witches that she grows into the strong woman her mother wants her to be. Again the magic of the film is that each character is only defined by their relationships with other women. Never by a man. The eldest of the witches hiding in Clair’s house is Fiona (Abigail Cowen) who is roughly a year or two older than Clair but provides her guidance and friendship. Two things that seem to be missing from her life.

Adlon’s performance would not be as effective if Elizabeth Mitchell’s performance as her mother wasn’t so evocative. MItchell is never overbearing and her politics speak clearer by her actions than any long monologue providing exposition. When she has to make a difficult choice at the end of the film, we trust her. Every journey comes to an end. Every parent/child relationship shifts at some point. It’s at these pivot points that Witch Hunt really shines.

If I had any criticism it would be that the movie isn’t really scary. We get some great tension as the witches peril grows but that tension never feels terrifying. It makes the whole film feel a bit like a political thriller. I am interested in that subgenre for sure but anyone else looking for a more traditional horror movie may not. In a world where witches are real we get very little magic. The limited special effects guarantee we spend time with the characters, examining their motivations and desires. It creates an added level of intimacy that made the film even easier to watch.

The film seems to exist in this parallel universe where Thelma and Louis is a movie, but things are different. Namely that they still still burn witches at the stake. The inability to get a feel for what time period we are in is a bit disorienting. They all drive cars from the nineties but there aren’t cell phones. They reference a movie from 90’s but the characters all act like it’s an older classic. The ambiguity of the time period reminds me a bit of It Follows and anachronistic elements. It feels familiar, but in an uncanny kind of way. These blurry edges make Witch Hunt important and a great watch.

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