You can read yesterday's entry here.

One thing they tell you when you're going to a film festival is to be prepared to stand in line for a long time, and when you have a press pass—like me—you have to show up pretty early to get into movies. So this morning, I was in line for The Witch forty-five minutes before its scheduled 9:00am runtime . . . and got turned away.

Lesson learned.

Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in 'A Walk in the Woods'
Image: Frank Masi

Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in 'A Walk in the Woods'

So after a coffee, I headed off to the premiere of A Walk in the Woods, Ken Kwapis's adaptation of Bill Bryson's book about walking the Appalachian Trail. Premieres are large and crowded with Festival pass- and ticket-holders (rather than the smaller press and industry screenings), so the feeling is quite different than a room full of exhausted veterans. These were moviegoers. And they were excited for this movie.

A Walk in the Woods stars Robert Redford—who founded Sundance in 1978—as Bryson, and Nick Nolte as his friend Stephen Katz, with Emma Thompson in a small role as Bryson's wife. With a screenplay by Michael Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine (itself still one of the biggest acquisition deals ever made at Sundance), it's fitting that the humor feels a lot like Bryson's own, filled with wry asides and punchy one-liners. There was a lot of laughter in the room.

It also boasted what felt like an outsized number of the kind of sexist jokes old men tell one another (Nolte is 73, while Redford, inconceivably, is 78); it's one thing to laugh at the men themselves for telling them, but after they kept coming the crowd quieted down a bit. That was symptomatic of the film's problem: it plays like an aimless ramble, which I suppose could be some kind of very sophisticated form-informs-content move on Arndt's part, but . . . well, probably not. It's so episodic and quippy that when they try to have meaningful conversations, it feels forced. (Nolte, I should say, at the risk of not having my credentials issued next year, was far more suited to and comfortable in his role than Redford, whose Bryson is smug enough that he never really seems to learn.)

But A Walk in the Woods is a sort of broadly-pleasing crowd-pleaser that grandpas and their teenage grandkids would go see together, which probably means it succeeded in doing exactly what it set out to do. But then, why is it at Sundance? It feels like the sort of film that would be easily picked up for distribution in April. John Cooper, the festival's director, insisted before the film that he programmed it without Redford knowing—the implication being that he picked it for its merits, rather than its star—but that seems like it has to be a bit of a stretch. But Redford is beloved, and has done so much for the world of independent film, that we can probably forgive it. (As of right now, just past midnight, the film doesn't yet have a U.S. distributor. But it will.)

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William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal

William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal

But that was still the weakest film I saw today. Later, I saw Best of Enemies, a documentary about the William F. Buckley, Jr. / Gore Vidal debates during the 1968 election. I don't know what I was expecting, really. The directors were Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville—Neville made Twenty Feet from Stardom—and for this film, they interviewed a plethora of thoughtful, interesting people from both the Buckley and Vidal camps—from Buckley's brother to both men's biographers to a bunch of New York Times writers, some media historians, and even Christopher Hitchens. It uses archival footage and excerpts read by Kelsey Grammer (a noted Republican) for Buckley and John Lithgow for Vidal.

Political documentaries on both right and left tend to be mostly polemical fear-mongering and also pretty lousy filmmaking, largely watched only by people who already agree with them to reinforce their own opinions. The genius of Best of Enemies is that it is not political at all, in the sense that it isn't arguing for a political position. In fact, it's remarkably even-handed in how it treats its subjects' politics.

What it's actually about is exactly why we don't get lots of even-handed political documentaries: it's about the moment our political discourse, dominated at the time by television, became characterized by talking head punditry and polarized position-taking. Once ABC's rankings jumped tremendously, taking them from last- to first-place in the network news rankings, media coverage of politics changed shape. Today, political coverage resembles sports coverage, and that's no mistake. Best of Enemies locates that right in the middle of these debates.

William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal
Image: ABC

William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal

And besides all that, the film is exciting. It's skillfully edited and suspenseful, even though we basically know how it ends, telling the story through a looping structure that helps show how bizarrely parallel Buckley and Vidal's lives were, and how much of their disagreement was not over policy, but specifically about the other person's way of living. It was a debate, the film says, not over what is the best way to live together, but over how a person should be. The goal was to show who was the better person—and in so doing, they launched what we know as modern identity politics, and also created a media environment in which image doesn't just matter, it's all that matters. (No distribution yet.)

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Finally, I got back in line once again to seeThe Witch, an hour and a half before it started, and this time I did. And, well: wow. It's a very creepy film set in Puritan New England years before the Salem witch trials, a period horror film that is perfectly restrained (except when it's not), and, incredibly, writer/director Robert Eggers' debut. A family is forced out of their town because they won't consent to the spiritual authority of the church there—the reasons aren't clear, but the family is very religious and clearly ultra-Calvinist. They build a house near the edge of the woods and set up a home. But then, weird things start to happen. Very, very weird things.

'The Witch'
Image: Jarin Blaschke

'The Witch'

This is not a movie for children, or probably for a lot of adults (and for a tiny content warning, besides the general creeptasticness, there's a little bit of female nudity and blood, mostly minimally shot but disturbing). It draws on reports and folk tales about witches from the era—a title card at the end says that most of the lines of dialogue were lifted directly from those reports—and it's sort of like a ghost story mashed up with a warning tale, except with more jumps and probably a few more resulting nightmares. It's shot and designed beautifully, with the large grey skies I remember so well from my own New England upbringing, and the performances of the children, particularly, are excellent.

More interesting to me is its thematic material. The strange happenings coincide directly with the eldest daughter's pubescence, and the imagery of blood and nakedness—things typically associated with female adolescence—are linked with apples, the fruit of Eve's temptation. So under its surface, it is a film about the temptation and confusion of female puberty, and about the particular experience of religious women, who have historically found themselves in the dually confusing place of navigating the feeling of emerging womanhood with the awareness of female sexuality and, potentially, mental health.

Linking these things together is an old story, but it put me in mind particularly of Rosemary's Baby, in which a pregnant woman becomes convinced she is carrying Satan's spawn, even while everyone around her thinks she's out of her mind—I've never been pregnant, but I can imagine that while it can be a wonderful thing, it could also be terrifying to feel as if your body has been invaded by another being, and all the hormones and changes in the movie get linked up with religious tropes and anxieties. And it made me think of Black Swan, a film in which, again, a woman's dawning awakening in her body and her inability to deal with it splits her psyche in half, good and evil.

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All three of these films (even Rosemary's Baby, for the most part) leave the door cracked to let the ambiguity in, and allow for multiple readings. The women involved could be hallucinating, dreaming, losing their minds, reacting to sublimated abuses, or actually experiencing what they see on screen; subtle visual filmmaking choices let the viewer read the film several ways. But what they all point at is the powerful, overwhelming link between sexuality, female bodies, guilt, and the religious sense of good and evil, and they wrack the nerves.

But you don't have to read it that way to be properly freaked out, and the film is subtle about what it's doing, backing away at all the right moments and scaring by subtraction. Eggers is a filmmaker to watch. (No distributor yet.)

There's a lot more to all of this, particularly The Witch, but I've got to get up early. Don't want to miss my screening again.

(You can follow me on Twitter, too—at @alissamarie.)

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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