There are so many things wrong with Dominic Sena’s Season of the Witch, I literally don’t know how to start this article. Do I lead with the film’s thematic inconsistencies or do I opt to point out everything that’s artistically wrong with it? As I ponder this question, it occurs to me that I’m perhaps putting too much effort into this thing. Maybe I should take my cues from the phoned-in performance of Nicholas Cage and do only the absolute minimum, then put my efforts into things that matter more.
Ah, but then I wouldn’t be able to truly convey just how frustrating this film is.
Season of the Witch feels like a straight-to-DVD movie that somehow managed to get a Oscar-winning star attached. In doing so, the film immediately qualified for a theatrical release, but the studio seemed conflicted on where on the 2010 release schedule to put it. It certainly didn’t have the budget to compete with the usual summer blockbusters, nor did it have the artistic bona fides to be released in the fall. Originally scheduled for a March release, it quickly became clear that it would have been swallowed up by the Alice in Wonderland box office juggernaut. So, what to do? Nicholas Cage does not star in straight-to-DVD movies.
Finally, it became obvious what to do. Dump the film in early January 2011. There won’t be any competition from bigger budget films, and it might find an audience in those wanting a break from those depressing Oscar bait movies. Who knows? It could actually win the weekend before being immediately forgotten by audiences and critics alike.
I wouldn’t usually spend so much time talking about a film’s box office prospects, but I really want to stress just how much this film, by all standards, should never have been released in a theater. It just doesn’t feel right. The scale of the film, while not being particularly ambitious, is just a little too large for the obviously modest production budget.
The script has a specifically small screen feel to it, complete with a short running time, archetypical characters, and on-the-nose dialogue. The screenplay, however, is not wholly without ambition. The story of a crusading knight’s growing dissatisfaction with the church’s constant invocation of God in the midst of bloody massacres could be the stuff of well-funded, critic-approved films like Kingdom of Heaven or Agora. And the constant accusations of witchcraft brings the message to our own doorstep, where the Salem Witch Trials determined the tragic fate of countless young women.
The problem with the film’s damning commentary is that it doesn’t have the artistic conviction to carry it through. The primary story concerns a small group of men escorting an apparent witch to a monastery, where she is to stand trial for bringing plague to the land. Throughout the film, there is some nice ambiguity, as we ourselves doubt the evil of the accused young girl. She seems decent enough, causing most of the men to question the church’s certainty of her supernatural abilities. Nicholas Cage’s character, whose loyalty to the church- both literally and philosophically- ended shortly after the slaughter of heathen women and children; as he is our protagonist, we take our cues from him. He and the girl become closer as his doubt about her supposedly evil actions grows. And, yet, the girl does seem surprisingly strong, and occasionally quite vicious. The “is she or isn’t she” dynamic could have really been rewarding, if the filmmakers developed it further and continued it to the end.
Unfortunately, all ambiguity melts away by the end of the film, as the girl is revealed to, in fact, be possessed by a very powerful demon. Suddenly, the actions of the church in its rooting out of evil seems pretty rational. A bit overzealous, to be sure, but certainly warranted. After all, if there is a demon roaming the countryside, spreading a deadly plague everywhere it goes, one could say that any effort to kill said demon is justified. I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis, in which he says, “the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did-if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather-, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.”
For the briefest of moments, I found myself tempted to think that perhaps the filmmakers were trying to use this story- a tale of the pursuit of a few truly evil people resulting in the killing of thousands- to make a commentary on modern “holy wars,” such as the War on Terror. Then, upon looking back on the film’s complete lack of subtlety, I realized that I was giving the writer and director far too much credit. This is not an allegory. It is, first and foremost, a period thriller, using words like “witch” and “demon” to capitalize on exotic supernatural imagery. A bit of social commentary is thrown in- perhaps to make the writer feel as though he is doing something important- but is soon smothered by the commercial instincts of the director.
Much has been made in the last few years of Nicholas Cage’s questionable choices. I used to think that these objections may be unfounded. But, then, of course, I never took the time to watch any of the movies in question. As far as I was concerned, Cage followed up his brilliant performance(s) in Adaptation with his junkie cop in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and his Adam West-like sociopath in Kick-Ass. I had not seen Knowing or Next or Bangkok Dangerous or The Wicker Man.
But, now, I have seen Season of the Witch and I get it.
In this film, Nicholas Cage brings none of the charisma and life that he has to many of his best (and even some of his worst) roles. His delivery of the admittedly less-than-stellar dialogue betrays what I would suggest is a lack of faith in the material. He looks bored and, given the lack of dimensions of the character, I’d say he probably is bored. It is one thing to have opted to be in the film, but it is quite another to indicate your distaste for the role in your performance.
The supporting cast- lesser known though they may be- certainly does what they can to imbue their characters with something unique. Ron Perlman can always be counted on to, at the very least, have fun with any role, but, for me, the standout was Stephen Campbell Moore as the suspicious priest. As the church’s official representative, we find ourselves immediately distrusting him, but Moore soon wins us over by refusing to judge the character. Though he is still given lines like, “We’re going to need more holy water,” his commitment is admirable.
I could go on, listing off the things that the film failed to do, but I won’t. Because those are largely incidental. The most frustrating thing about Season of the Witch is that it actually had potential. In spite of a fairly low budget, it was directed by the man who made Swordfish and Gone in 60 Seconds; certainly not high art, but at least adequately made. It stars an actor whose commitment to making his characters distinct and interesting is his greatest asset. It has a very willing and eager supporting cast of actors clearly looking for the opportunity to turn in solid work. All in service of a story that could have been thrilling and suspenseful while also containing social commentary and satire.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. What could have been a modest thriller wound up being a forgettable collection of compromises. A supernatural shrug that should never have even been considered for a March release. Season of the Witch is, to its very core, the quintessential January movie.