Season of the Witch (2011) – Directed by Dominic Sena – Starring Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Robert Sheehan, Ulrich Thomsen, Stephen Graham, and Christopher Lee.
SEASON OF THE WITCH is the kind of movie that’s neither awful enough to just stop watching, nor good enough to ever be average. It’s not engaging, it’s not scary, and it’s not fun. What it is, unfortunately, is a dreadfully depressing movie, in part because the story is told in such a lifeless way and in part because Nic Cage and his character, Behman of Bleibruck, spend the entire film with such a vacant look on their face that you half-hope the only reason Cage took this job was because he needed another shot of smack and they were holding it off-camera and wouldn’t give it to him until he got through the scene.
Cage can be an infuriating actor, but I personally like the fact that he takes all different kinds of roles in all kinds of different movies. I don’t like all of them, of course, but at times his presence can help what should be a really awful movie become something fun, such as the highly enjoyable Drive Angry. In SEASON OF THE WITCH, however, he walks lifelessly through the story, which is maybe exactly what his character needs, but in that case, they should have found a different character for the lead of the film to play.
Let’s cover the one really positive part of this film right up front: Ron Perlman. Unlike Cage’s traumatized Behman of Bleibruck (they keep saying, “of Bleibruck” like it’s supposed to mean something, but since it’s the only character in the film they ever say this about, it just comes off as self-involved and arbitrary), Perlman’s Felson hits all the right notes. Felson is an old, grizzled veteran of the Crusades, the kind of guy who’s not fighting because he believes in winning glory for God but because he was a sinner and signing up was a Get Out of Jail Free Card. Felson and Perlman have that been-there-done-that-still-love-it vibe. Nothing seems to bother him or throw him, and he’s perfectly happy being Behman’s sidekick. When they’re on the Crusades, he fights and kills, and when Behman accidentally kills a woman and deserts, Felson follows along like a loyal dog.
It’s not just Felson that deserves credit for this film’s one, shining light, but Perlman, who’s the only person associated with this film that can get Cage to show any signs of life. Perlman’s professionalism and total commitment to this character brings Cage’s acting to the surface. Cage really does look like he’s having a dreadful time making this movie, with the scenes he shares with Perlman being a lone bright spot.
As for the non-Perlan parts of WITCH, it’s a film that makes you wonder why it even got made. The protagonist of the film walks around mostly depressed and guilt-ridden, most of scenes either take place at night or are soaked in a depressing grey color palette, none of the ideas are actually scary, and there’s not much fun. It honestly feels like a movie that should have been made with C-list actors on the cheap for a straight-to-video or -cable release and then somehow got a star to sign on so they figured, what the heck, let’s try and make an actual movie out of it.
Dominic Sena directs the film and he’s a talented director who makes soulless films. His four most recent films (WITCH, Whiteout, Swordfish, and Gone in 60 Seconds) all look slick but offer little beneath the surface. Gone is his best film, but now I wonder if it’s because it had such a star-studded cast (Cage, Angelina Jolie, Robert Duvall, Giovanni Ribisi, Delroy Lindo, Timothy Olyphant, Will Patton, Chi McBride, Christopher Eccleston, Frances Fisher, and Arye Gross) that the actors carried the story through the sheer force of their personalities while Sena did a credible job making it look cool. WITCH certainly looks slick but it’s such a muted color palette and such an improperly paced story that you can’t appreciate the slickness of it.
The plot concerns Behman and Felson get coerced by the Church into taking a witch to a monastery so the monks there can end the Black Death, and a couple others join them on the way, but this “rag tag group of adventurers” never really comes together or even interacts with one another in a meaningful way. There’s three clear Acts in WITCH – the pre-adventure where Behman and Felson fight and then leave the Crusades, the trip transporting the witch to the monastery after they’ve been forced to come back into the church’s employ, and the big fight at the monastery with the supernatural throwdown with the demon who’s been hiding inside the witch-who-isn’t-a-witch-after-all.
The first Act is pointless because it adds nothing to the film. We could very easily have junked the entire first bit with Behman and Felson cutting down enemies over several years in the Crusades because it adds nothing to the film. The bad guy of this act is a church representative who keeps giving big speeches about how everyone they fight needs to die because God wants it that way. Since this dude never shows up again, we could have done without all that screen time establishing him as the bad guy.
In the second Act, Behman and Felson transport the witch. Up to now there hasn’t been any supernatural bent to the film and the Church has been clearly signaled as being the bad guys, so when the witch shows up as the explanation for the plague, I’m thinking this is going to be revealed as more Church nonsense. Except she really is a witch – or, at least, extremely powerful for what her human body should be able to do. It offers a wonderful opportunity for the filmmakers to complicate things, but they don’t. Instead, we’ve got a seemingly unending journey (though it only takes about 30 minutes of screen time) through dark woods. The most tense part of the film is the group trying to get across a rotted bridge.
In the third act, they reach the monastery, find all the monks dead (except one, that is, who promptly dies), and then the witch is revealed as a girl possessed by a demon. It’s a nice twist, and the twist that the demon has wanted to get to the monastery all along is a legitimately good one, but that’s all the cleverness the film can muster. What happens next is a battle in a cramped room with poor lighting. Think of the lamest fight scene in any Harry Potter movie and then imagine what it would look like if the people filming that scene had turned off the lighting and you’ve got an idea of this final sequence.
At the end of the day, SEASON OF THE WITCH apparently made money (the Never Wrong says it cost $40 mil and made $90 mil worldwide), so it did what it was made to do, but it’s such a joyless, dreary experience that I’m left to wonder why it was even made.