Directed by Dominic Sena
Written by Bragi F. Schut
As if to simplify things for the beleaguered critic, Season of the Witch makes clear right away that it has absolutely no stake in its own moral credibility. After a brief – and ambiguity-destroying – prologue, in which a priest is hung by the throat by a vengeful spirit, we meet Crusaders Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) as they slash through a series of intertitle-dated battles and boast of their respective triple-digit kill counts, with each one promising to buy the other drinks if they can slaughter more infidels. In the last of these sequences, Behmen is made to suddenly develop a conscience when he accidentally murders a beautiful woman. They’re bloodthirsty religious zealots with hearts of gold!
That lack of credibility is symptomatic of Witch‘s general half-assedness, from its blandly contemporary dialogue (“let’s get the hell out of here,” suggests Perlman at one point in typical wisecracking mode) to its blasé attitude towards institutional religious corruption. After trying to desert, Behmen and Felson are recruited, along with a priest, a guide, and a battle-hungry altar boy, to escort a captive “witch” (Claire Foy) to a distant church in order to “assess” whether or not she is to blame for the Black Plague, and eventually wind up facing down a computer-generated threat so ludicrous it feels ripped off from an even lesser movie.
Anyone who connects the dots between the themes of religious mania suggested in Witch‘s promotional materials and the possibility of another delightfully insane performance from the often-imbalanced Cage – perhaps egged on by memories of his woman-assaulting, bearsuit-wearing turn in Neil LaBute’s deeply misguided remake of The Wicker Man – and hopes for a repeat performance from the idiosyncratic star in Dominic Sena’s (ostensible) thriller will find themselves deeply disappointed here. Cage’s character has one mode – penitent – and nothing more, so there’s not much room for Cage’s unique brand of scenery-chewing, though a couple of details (like a scene in which Behmen peels a boiled egg by firelight) are likely to have originated from the actor’s peculiar sense of craft. Beyond Cage, only Foy has any fun with this deeply silly material, doing her best Linda Blair impression, and, in one scene, seeming to offer Cage’s bleary Crusader a blowjob. (Viewers in search of a truly salacious swords-n’-Bibles epic should seek out Paul Verhoeven’s debauched Flesh + Blood.)
For the most part, however, this is a typically tired January affair; in the can for over two years, Witch looks and feels cheap, warmed-over, and barely thought through, especially when the last reel undoes whatever tenuous logic the rest of the film enjoyed in an ugly mess of slapdash CGI and nonsensical twists. Most cruelly of all, despite Perlman’s attempts at levity, Witch is all too content to take itself seriously, particularly in its smug postscript, which finally does away with any previous misgivings with the Church in favor of all-out, God-fearing hokum.
– Simon Howell