REVIEW: Season of the Witch? More like Season of the Whatever
Season of the Witch has nothing at all to do, in theme, tone or mood, with the Donovan song of the same name. If only! No great-sounding nonsense warbling about beatniks out to make it rich, or rabbits running in a ditch, or even about the necessity of picking up every stitch. Just a Crusades-era Nicolas Cage traipsing round Ye Olde Europe in chain mail and unwashed hair, trying to transport a supposed witch-girl from point A to point B at the behest of his Church -- which, by the way, he's lost faith in.
The least you could expect from Season of the Witch is some B-grade existential suffering from Cage's character, a conscience-stricken soldier named Behmen: After a particularly brutal massacre in the name of the Lord, it dawns on Behmen that he's slain innocent civilians, including women and children. Totally over the killing-for-Jesus thing, he walks off in a high-dudgeon huff with his best friend, Felson (Ron Perlman, the only actor here who manages to inject some unselfconscious bonhomie into these dull, humorless proceedings). But once the duo reach their home, they realize it's been decimated by the Black Plague, which the local religious types are convinced has been caused by a pretty, if dirty, young witch (Claire Foy), whom they've accordingly locked in a dungeon.
Just as nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, you can't just walk away from the Crusades. And so Behmen and Felson are brought before a plague-afflicted, dying cardinal, played by the always-fab Christopher Lee. (Lying abed in his regal vestments, his right eye disfigured by a pus-filled growth the size of an artichoke, he's got all the awful majesty of one of Francis Bacon's screaming popes.) Cardinal Pus gives them a choice: They can be locked up, or they can transport the dirty witch to a far-off abbey, where she's scheduled to stand trial. Yeah, right.
Behmen suspects the witch-girl might be innocent, or perhaps just a victim of the devil's high jinks. So he agrees to the mission, with a con artist (Stephen Graham), a namby-pamby priesty type in too-short bangs (Stephen Campbell Moore), a disillusioned knight (Ulrich Thomsen) and a callow wanna-be knight (Robert Sheehan) in tow. But it's unclear why the director, Dominic Sena, and the screenwriter, Bragi F. Schut, even need to bother with these extra characters: Most of them are barely identifiable as individuals before they meet one bad end or another, either at the jaws of dumb-ass CGI wolves, or a sword that happens to be poking out in the wrong direction, or something.
Sena would seem to be the perfect director for this bit of high-toned hokum: In the past, he's given us reasonably enjoyable, junky-fun thrillers like Whiteout, Gone in Sixty Seconds (also starring Cage) and Swordfish. But this material is both too bombastic and too puny to be shaped into anything with even marginal entertainment value. The dialogue is intentionally, excessively anachronistic: When Felson smells something bad and wonders what it might be, Behmen, yukmeister that he is, responds with something along the lines of "That would be you."
But in the context of the big, stupid story around them, these jaunty attempts at levity have about as much life as plague-decayed flesh. The picture makes a few stabs at building suspense in a big way, as when our little troupe of heroes and misfits is forced to cross a long, rickety bridge suspended over a seemingly bottomless canyon. But the sequence, slathered over with muddy special effects, is more creaky and lumbering than it is tense. The movie's good-versus-evil climactic battle is similarly underwhelming, save for one gorgeous effect that makes grand use of ashes and sparks.
Season of the Witch is occasionally impressive-looking, with its scrubby steel-gray and drab-blue color palette. (The DP here is Amir M. Mokri.) And there's lots of texture in the costumes: The characters are decked out in curly-fur pelts, rough woolen capes and leather straps fastened with fine, manly looking iron buckles.
You'll want to spend lots of time checking out those costumes, because, Perlman and Lee aside, there's not much to watch in the acting department. Foy is required to do little more than growl and hiss in her cage. And not even Cage -- a great actor, so great that he's wholly believable and moving in all kinds of idiotic poo (Knowing, for example) -- seems to give a damn about the massive spiritual battle brewing around his character. Season of the Witch might have been great fun if Sena had upped the craziness factor to give us a story high on its own religious fervor and the-devil-made-me-do-it loopiness. As it is, Season of the Witch is barely even a Nicolas Cage movie. He wanders through the picture, zombified.
How can this be? There are few actors out there whom I'd rather watch in crisis-of-conscience roles: Cage, as crazily over the top as he often is (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, anyone?), can also carry the kind of soft mournfulness in his eyes that suggests the weight of the world could crush him in a heartbeat, if he'd let it.
But what he does in Season of the Witch barely registers as a performance, let alone a Nicolas Cage performance. Occasionally he looks kind of sad, maybe even pained, albeit in a "I just had a gas bubble" way. But this is the guy who's going to save the world from the devil? There's a lot at stake in Season of the Witch. But there's no one here to save us from the plague of half-asleep filmmaking.