Sunday, January 9, 2011

Season of the Witch

A recent College Humor video humorously posited the life of Nicolas Cage's agent, a man forced to contend with his client's perennial inability to say "no" to any project in order to keep himself in castles and pyramids. But that sketch, of course, was lighthearted and broad, building the man's outsized grief at being saddled with Cage's willingness to do everything and dilute his brand until the pain reached a frenzy. I like to imagine Cage's agent as a man who expresses his sorrow in the opposite fashion, silently nodding with resignation as his client agrees to be in the latest piece of crap, hanging up the phone and reaching for a home blood pressure kit to test his heart.

He must have had to put a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue when Cage signed onto Season of the Witch, a film that all but begs comparisons to Monty Python and the Holy Grail despite its straight face. As with that legendary comedy, Season moves largely in a series of vignettes vaguely resembling a plot, but where that played into the Pythons' sketch comedy genius, Season merely moves as if caught in the death rattle of the Black Plague, leaking pustules of narrative drying and caking around swollen nodes of plagiarized fantasy tropes. The plague features prominently in Dominic Sena's film, and I found myself in the unexpected position of feeling sorry for a pandemic disease.

Opening with a scene with only the slightest bearing on the rest of the film, Season of the Witch establishes its style -- for want of a better term -- instantly, carving out its identity with disorienting edits, a slew of references to other (and better) movies and an adherence to historical accuracy that could charitably be described as laughable. Three women accused of witchcraft receive the farcical trial afforded to heretical suspects before being chucked off a bridge with ropes around their necks before their corpses are lowered into the river below, hydroponically planting the corpses in such a way that one simply must expect something bad to happen soon (does that then make this the Spring of the Witch?). A priest wishes to read an incantation to ensure the accused witches stay dead, but a knight says that a hanging and drowning were sufficient. In the interest of honesty, I should say I found this a fair and logical assessment. But of course, they should have let that monk read from his blinged-out book, and soon a drowned woman comes back long enough to wreak a bit of havoc before some other damn movie, apparently.

But don't think about that, 'cause here comes a Crusade montage. Thousands of miles away, Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman), two knights in service to the Church, gleefully hack their way through Saracens and other enemies of God. Whatever statement Sena might have wanted to make about the hypocrisy of religious purity -- and Lord does he want to make that point -- gets swallowed up in the fun he has clumsily staggering through this montage, broken up briefly by a "wait, what?" shot of the two knights reveling in the most minimalistic medieval tavern ever set up on an empty stage before returning immediately to more shots of God's warrior tearing through the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. Unhelpful title cards provide no sense of logical progression -- they seem to go into the Middle East, return to Europe to fight dissident Christians and then back to Smyrna for a bit of Turkish delight.

But then, after years of killing, Behmen accidentally stabs a woman whose protracted death gasp stuns the man into suddenly giving up his ways and returning to England with Felson, only to immediately be recruited once more by a monk who believes the outbreak of bubonic plague in the knights' absence can be attributed to a young woman who has "confessed" to being a witch. A monk, Debelzaq (seriously?), charges the deserters with helping deliver her to trial in some mysterious monastery, the location of which he barely knows. "I serve the Church no more," Behmen intones with solemn finality, about five minutes before he willingly serves the Church again.

And there, after 20 minutes of largely unconnected, gaudy visuals, ends the plot. The rest of Season of the Witch gets by on weak jump scares, poorly choreographed suspense sequences and dialogue so stale you could store it for food on the long journey to the New World, which of course wouldn't be discovered for another century after the timeline of this film but why should I be held to an accurate, linear account of history when no one involved with the film was? Out of context, some lines attain a terrific comedy: one of the women at the beginning about to be hanged pleads innocence for her ointments. "It was just pig fat," she shrieks with wild eyes. "It wasn't witchcraft!" In one scene, Felson undercuts Behmen's religious rants by saying "Keep your souls. I just want a chicken." Behind him is an untended, well-fed dairy cow that could provide drink and meat in much larger quantities. In context, the lines pile up in collisions of exposition, a crisscrossing web of dialogue as self-defeating as the contradictory plots and themes that dialogue attempts to elucidate.

Nothing in this movie fits together, as if someone attempted to complete a single puzzle with the pieces from five or six separate boxes. The only chemistry that exists between Cage and Perlman must be drawn from the juxtaposition of their faces, Cage's giant forehead playing off Perlman's massive, sloping jawline (Perlman's head is so huge that he can make medium shots into de facto close-ups). Perlman, the only decent aspect of the film, brings his one-man, don't-give-a-damn swagger from Hellboy to the role, making him mesmerizing despite his clunky dialogue (nothing but references to food and sex) but solitary, while Nicolas Cage has the look in his eye of a gold digger lying there and thinking of the Lambourgini that's coming his way once the old bastard dies. A veritable "who's that?" fills out the rest of the cast, some of whom are getting their first major international exposure in a manner they will no doubt attempt to hide in the coming years. Oh, but Christopher Lee shows up for a cameo as a dying cardinal with the world's worst zit, inspiring the question, "Is Christopher Lee running out of money?" God damn it, David Cameron, I don't care how bad the economy is; give this man his proper pension. When FDR installed Social Security as a means of protecting the dignity of the elderly, this has to be what he had in mind.

What the hell even happens in this movie? How can a plot so linear and derivative yet so incomprehensible? Everything exists as a storyboarded sequence, though that would imply that enough planning went into the movie that even a connected series of suspense and action scenes might have arisen from pre-production. Season of the Witch moves through so many Tolkien ripoffs that one setpiece impressively manages to plagiarize Minas Tirith and Helm's Deep in one go. They wade around a bit in a forest, engaging in one of the dullest rickety bridge segments I have ever seen, and there is in fact competition for so narrow a scenario. Sena's camera moves with all the precision of a North Korean nuke, though it makes me just as wary: no spatial continuity exists between random close-ups and medium shots that make up all action shots. Even establishing shots don't help, and most long shots appear to move away from the action as if the DP was trying to slink out of the project as surreptitiously as possible. Poor Claire Foy, in her big-screen debut, is forced to oscillate so rapidly between shivering innocent and manipulative, sinister harpy that one could use her performance as a fan.

So jumbled and meaningless is the film that whatever points Sena and writer Bragi F. Schut (who undoubtedly uses the middle initial to distinguish himself among the other Bragi Schuts) might have made are instantly canceled out by a plot contrivance that occurs typically minutes later. Behmen has seen the evil of the Church and both he and another knight (Ulrich Thomsen) know that religious leaders use witch trials to eradicate dissidents and those who don't fit neatly into the Church's vision of the ideal society. Oh, but wait, there actually are witches and demons so some of these hanging/drowning/inexplicably necessary incantations are clearly justified. Ergo, a few holy men might be full of hot air, but the Church itself is founded on a true basis of supernatural connection and some of the most grisly executions in human history are warranted. Likewise, someone finally has the sense to point out the protagonist cannot atone for years of atrocity by saving one pretty girl, but then that's exactly how how Behmen redeems himself.

That's what makes the film's smug tone all the more infuriating. It actually thinks itself clever, gracelessly speaking aloud its perceived subversion before showing another picture entirely. But everyone involved clearly thought they were making something intelligent until the focused looks begin to slack off about halfway through and Cage starts letting his hair do the acting. Sena even had the audacity to cite The Seventh Seal, one of the landmarks of film history, as a key inspiration. One can almost imagine the haughty son of a bitch lounging in an interview, casually taking a pull from a long cigarette and unironically saying, "Well, I felt a certain intuitive bond with witchcraft, because I'm in the business of making magic."

Season of the Witch has that cheap blue-gray glaze that directors like to use to instill a sense of chilly foreboding and despair, but I didn't need color suggestion for this film to make me sad. Compared to the host of oneiric films last year that incorporated dreams and highly subjective filmmaking into corkscrewing narratives, the third-person distance of Season of the Witch should make the movie far more linear, yet the lazy abandon of continuity and thematic development made the film so hard to follow that those series of useless title cards upfront become even more offensive in their inefficiency. We are spared even the glorious overreaction of Nicolas Cage's weirdness, and I feared that the accused witch at the beginning got that pig fat for her ointments by draining that glistening ham that is an unleashed Cage. Too dully self-confident and plodding to work as unintentional humor, Season of the Witch denied me even the thrill of a Nic Cage stinker. I'm giving the film one star, and that's solely for the brief flash of unintentional humor that had me rolling: a freeze-frame on Cage's face that looks as if someone snapped a drunken self-portrait at a Renaissance Fair-themed frat party. It's magnificent: the shot is supposed to move the audience, and I had tears in my eyes, all right.


  1. very amusing review, no intention of seeing the film... regarding nic cage, at least we got "the bad lieutenant"

  2. Very well written and insightful.

    "...and writer Bragi F. Schut (who undoubtedly uses the middle initial to distinguish himself among the other Bragi Shuts)" -- hahahaha. Brilliant.