Feb

15

 Season of the Witch

Directed by Dominic Sena Reviewed by marion ds dreyfus

In Season of the Witch, one of the sillier sword-and-seal Hollywood products of the season, a daring duo of Crusades-deserters, hangers-on and a priest literally stop the Black Death with just their side-swords, a Latin missal and their shaken-but-unstirred faith in Deity. (But really, isn't it really about whether we should try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court. So saith moi, anyway.) As it opens, Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman, Crusaders with an anachronistic stream of nonstop cynical repartee, kid each other nonchalantly about the number of enemies they'll slay—buddy badinage that continues across a violent montage of the greatest Crusade hits of the 1330s and 1340s. That youthful cockiness gets a rude moral awakening (finally) within 15 years, in the face of a battle toll that includes blameless women and children. Would Christ honk in admiration of this? So they desert God's Army, abandoning battlefield for the Bubonically scarred countryside, its boil-bubbled icky faces and mass graves of plague-ridden corpses. Sorcerer's Apprentice, this ain't. But even that, starring the ubiquitous Cage, wasn't.

But neither is it Mad Max. It's a road flick, in which our Transit Irregulars transport a suspected witch to a monk stronghold. Its temperament is carefully studio-neutered, taking no greater casualty than Cage, too resolutely contemporary. When playing an ornery magician or a Middle Kingdom warrior, he reads like an L.A. bar-habituee in medieval drag. Period film is not him. Well, what is him? His capacity for crazy, his alacrity—and natural ability—to inhabit volatile characters, like the leads of Guarding Tess (1994), Adaptation (2002) or The Bad Lieutenant (2009), to their scruffiest ends. In paycheck plums like this, he's cocooned into impotency by studio dictat. As though he's force-fed Prozac to keep his real, unstable self back in the cloakroom producing soggy readings devoid of oomph or Oh-my.

Time-extending set pieces, from a wolf attack to a midnight chase through a mud trench, fill out the simplified 2-hour pitch. Together, the film exploits the libretto of medieval cinematic tropes. There's a ghostly, fog-foliaged forest; rickety bridge crossings; medieval witches who appear at first glance luminous, incapable of a nasty thought. Ditching the Dark Ages in attitude, though, it's assidulously anti-clerical, an unapologetic middle finger to Rome.

Pre-Renaissance Catholics also serve as surrogates for modern-day Americans, particularly military-class (amplified by Cage's tale about an unscrupulous recruiter). The film acknowledges compromised heroes, more or less unethical killers. Despite its suggestions of ambiguity, Season is 'good guys that have Him on their side' and a righteous mission. Like our War on Terror, the problem is never their objective (high-concept) but leadership and execution (Oy). Cage–and the viewer, us, by implication–insist on the 'witch's' right to a 'fair trial,' whatever that meant 600 years ago, but by denouement he can't


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