Caged Plot

This period adventure might as well be a horror hoax

This movie is so awful that you’d think it was a vicious prank. A mockery without humor, Season of the Witch is so blandly and artificially written that screenwriter Bragi F. Schut should never be allowed near a keyboard again. That’s not to say that director Dominic Sena isn’t equally culpable in this diabolical failure on every level of production, music and special effects included.

Nicolas Cage plays Behman, an inarticulate 14th-century Christian knight who gets fed up with killing women and children as a soldier of the Crusades. Along with his equally smarmy war buddy, Felson (Ron Perlman), Behman goes AWOL. On the run, in a plague-infested village, the pair are arrested and forced to transport a nameless demonically possessed girl across “dangerous” terrain. Their destination is an abbey where the erratic-acting girl will be “fairly” judged about her identity as a witch. An exorcism may be needed. The girl (ferociously played by Claire Foy) is blamed for unleashing the Black Plague on the land where thousands are dying. Devil wolves and a shaky rope bridge provide about as much suspense as a Peanuts cartoon.

Looking like the Sex Pistols’ drummer Paul Cook, Stephen Graham gives the film its only bright spot in his supporting role as Hagamar, a petty swindler who guides the group across a not-so daunting wilderness filled with dubious CGI effects. To be shown up by a supporting actor would be unforgivable to an actor such as Al Pacino or the late Laurence Olivier. It says something about a loss of respect for the craft of acting that Perlman and Cage would even attempt to pawn off such unpolished performances, regardless of the content of the script or lack thereof.

Cage seems to have given up on creating characters after baring his unvarnished soul in Mike Figgis’ moving 1995 tragedy, Leaving Las Vegas. The performance won Cage an Oscar for Best Actor, and presumably left him with no more artistic intentions than raking in big money to squander on mansions and fast cars. Shifting into a stylized all-purpose action movie star for disposable films such as The Rock and Con Air took a toll that removed any attention to detail for an actor who once compared favorably with Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, and Matt Dillon. Although he has since flirted briefly with unconventional roles in Adaptation, Matchstick Men and Lord of War, there’s nothing in those performances to rival his unforgettable work in films such as Birdy or Moonstruck.

Cage’s singular foray into directing with his sadly overlooked film Sonny (2002) showed a promising glimpse inside Cage’s mind as a filmmaker. Poor distribution doomed the film at the box office and left a bad taste in his mouth for pursuing directing as a viable option for further artistic exploration. Currently, the best thing that can be said about Cage as an actor is that his name has come to represent a sure signal of something to avoid.

It’s a time-honored tradition that Hollywood dumps the movies it needs to unload during January and February. So it comes as no revelation to see the first week of 2011 squeeze out just one wide-release film. But this dog is a real yelper. You’ll yawn, you’ll look at your watch, and you’ll be sorry you wasted your time and money.

Season of the Witch (PG-13) ★☆☆☆☆

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