The first scene of Dominic Sena’s new film, Season of the Witch (penned by Bragi F. Schut), a follow-up to his idiotic Whiteout, chronicles the hanging of three accused witches at the hands of a group of religious zealots in Viccah, a fictional town, in 1235 A.D. This scene is meant to make the Catholic Church’s power clear, which is made all the more evident when we are propelled a century later, as an army of crusaders, quotes from the Bible in tow, destroys its enemies. From there on out, we are introduced to a duo of soldiers-turned-deserters Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman), in a montage of epic battles (all of them look the same), that leads up to the moment in which Behmen accidentally slays a young woman — setting forth an epiphany that results in their leave. However, their pasts come back to haunt them when they are forced to deliver a young witch (Claire Foy) to a fellowship of monks in order to retrieve the Key of Solomon in a last ditch effort to stop the Black Plague, an infliction thought to be brought by a witchcraft that causes its victims to turn into tumor-ridden corpses. This perilous task is turned all the more difficult when the hardened warriors are made to babysit a swindler (Stephen Graham), a priest (Stephen Campbell Moore), and an altar-boy (Robert Sheehan).
The theme of deception is present throughout this journey; most explicitly in the societal brainwashing that the Catholic Church has upheld, however, it is also evident in ‘The Girl,’ who coincidentally is the only character whose performer deserved her paycheck. It is through this manipulation that powerful warriors, armed to the teeth, are promised redemption for their crimes, ironically in exchange for acts of violence against those that the Church has labeled as an “enemy.” Whereas, citizens, adhering to the crusaders, are forced to look upon the religious establishment as their last chance of salvation, as the plague continues to kill peasants and royalties alike. And although, ‘The Girl’ lacks any sort of proper identification, thematically, she is also the most important. She provides her own brand of deceit; using her innocent demeanor to lure unsuspecting victims — maybe these methods aren’t that different after-all.
Fortunately for Season of the Witch, a film already knee-deep in problems, Tinseltown newcomer and Oxford alumna, Claire Foy, doesn’t further dampen the production, arguably being the best thing about Dominic Sena’s latest. Foy lends naturalism to her character: Channeling a sense of eeriness one moment, but the next, showing complete helplessness. Even more commendable is the fact that she does so without making ‘The Girl’ feel satirically bi-polar. But the praise cannot be shared with her cast-mates. This includes Cage and Perlman, two seasoned actors that have been single-handedly upstaged by someone who hasn’t even graced the big-screen beforehand.
Granted, a film whose key marketing ploy is to highlight the fact that it stars Nicolas Cage is a bit of a dice roll seeing as the actor has one of the most peculiar tastes in contemporary cinema. Not a stranger to roles that most self-respecting actors wouldn’t dare touching, of which includes H.I. McDunnough (Raising Arizona), Charlie/Donald Kaufman (Adaptation.), Terrence McDonagh (The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans), Damon Macready/Big Daddy (Kick-Ass) and Ben Sanderson (Leaving Las Vegas — the film that garnered his first and only Oscar for best actor). Though the aforementioned are all examples of the times Cage has struck gold, such luck has not proved effective for the rest of his filmography — one that is plagued with stinkers such as Astro Boy, G-Force, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Bangkok Dangerous, and now Season of the Witch. In his role as Behmen, Cage is sloppy. He slurs lines and presents a less-than-charismatic turn as a righteous knight. Perhaps period-pieces aren’t his forte; either that or the man has acquired a taste for hard liquors following his recent debacle with the Internal Revenue Service — most probably a combination of the two.
However, nothing can explain Perlman’s involvement. Staying away from major controversies and gracing films like Hellboy and The City of Lost Children, it would seem as if he were the go-to guy for any sort of production (plus he isn’t afraid to cover up that ugly mug), so why choose this one? As Felson, Behmen’s “no nonsense” counterpart, Perlman is visibly disinterested. This spills over to Cage’s rocky performance, leading up to a friendship that lacks any chemistry. Gladly, he’s nowhere near as unlikable as Robert Sheehan, whose presence is unbearable. It goes without saying that Perlman too, is not big on these types of films, but shouldn’t he have already learned that from his work on Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale? Alas, that might be too extreme of an example.
Though the blame shouldn’t just be placed on the cast’s shoulders, the entire production team is at fault. Inefficiencies span from Schut’s script, one that is full of contrived dialogue and predictable storytelling, to the costume and prop design, which is responsible for armor and swords that look like cheap plastic. Lastly Sena’s direction is bland, his problem being the complete opposite of Cage’s — he is too afraid of going outside the norm. As a result, although The Season of the Witch does well in showing the violence and hypocrisy of the crusades, nothing else is accomplished; if the film is any indication of the year ahead, then these really are dark times ahead of us.