Season of the Witch (United States, 2011)January 08, 2011
It's the 14th century somewhere in the middle of Europe. In the name of verisimilitude, the filmmakers of Season of the Witch have covered everyone with dirt and filmed only at night and on cloudy days. At times, it looks like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, only the Knights Who Say "Ni!" are nowhere to be found. Oh, and one other thing: Everyone speaks vaguely Shakespearean-sounding English with an American accent, just as Chaucer always intended. Meanwhile, method actor that he is, Nicolas Cage has eschewed the use of a razor and possibly decided to avoid baths and showers during the course of the Hungary/Austria shoot. His dedication to his craft shines through, as is evident in the occasional wrinkling of Ron Perlman's nose.
There are positives and negatives to hiring Nicolas Cage. On the one hand, he's a recognizable name with an Oscar on his resume and a proven (albeit uneven) box office draw. On the other hand, when he's on autopilot - which has been most of the time in recent years - he can be awful. He also has a severely limited range that does not include traipsing around Europe with a witch in tow during the Crusades. Cage is effective as a falling down drunk in Las Vegas or a treasure hunter navigating goofy road trips but not as a disillusioned champion of the Church going one-on-one with a demon. Steven Seagal would have been more believable.
When it comes to acting, Cage is by far the worst offender in this endeavor, but he's not the only one. With the exception of Ron Perlman, who often looks to be searching for a cigar to chomp on, the performances are uniformly lifeless. The mood is so solemn and serious that when a character cracks a joke (including one appropriated from Jaws), it feels awkward and out-of-place. Only Perlman seems to recognize that the only way Season of the Witch can work is to treat the material as parody: Monty Python and the Season of the Witch. Unfortunately, he's the only one on that page and not even director Dominic Sena has joined him. The result: most of the cast is exuding gloom and doom, Perlman is off doing Python-inspired shtick, and Cage is trying to figure out if his bank account has enough zeroes in front of the decimal point for him to begin doing good movies again.
As Season of the Witch begins, Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) are two of God's most reliable warriors in the Crusades - until they experience an epiphany and recognize that all of the killing is pointless. They desert and head home but, along the way, they are pressed into service by the decrepit Cardinal D'Ambroise (Christopher Lee, rightfully hoping no one will recognize him), who wants them to join a group of four others to transport a suspected witch (Claire Foy) to a nearby city where she can be tried for heresy. D'Ambroise suspects she may be responsible for the Black Plague and, with her death, its ravages can be stopped. The trip is arduous, with various obstacles presenting themselves, including a none-too-stable rope bridge across a canyon, a huge pack of wolves, and an end game that doesn't go as planned. It all comes down to a battle against a demon who talks like a New Yawk City beat cop with a megaphone.
Underneath the underwhelming production design and the aimless narrative, a couple of intriguing ideas are disposed of with little fanfare. The conceit that a knight might recognize the underlying corruption of the Crusades - it was a power-play by a racist and dictatorial Church - is not without merit; unfortunately, it becomes a secondary plot point serving little purpose beyond explaining how Behmen and Felson end up on witch escort duty. The second potentially intriguing concept relates to the initial ambiguity surrounding the supposed witch, who is comely and terrified. Does she truly possess supernatural powers or is she an innocent caught up in a literal witch hunt? And if she is a witch, does that necessarily mean she is touched by the Devil? Sadly, Season of the Witch barely has time to ask these questions before it answers them in a predictable, unsatisfactory manner.
What Season of the Witch essentially tries to do is graft a road trip onto a medieval setting with standard fantasy adventure types. If not for the ripe dialogue, the lack of interesting occurrences, and the blandness of the characters, it might have worked. Instead, we get a journey in which the most momentous and exciting event is when the witch's mobile jail has trouble making it across a rope bridge. The climactic ten minutes represent a spiral into absurdity and self-parody that isn't helped by some cheesy special effects and a complete lack of originality. Season of the Witch teeters on the edge of slipping into the "so bad it's good" camp, but ultimately ends up being merely bad, and an early contender for a place on the 2011 Bottom 10 list.
Season of the Witch (United States, 2011)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Stephen Campbell Moore, Stephen Graham, Ulrich Thomsen, Claire Foy, Robert Sheehan, Christopher Lee
Screenplay: Bragi Schut
Cinematography: Amir M. Mokri
Music: Atli Orvarsson
U.S. Distributor: Relativity Media