Season of the Witch Is a Movie About Whether We Should Try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Civilian Court

01/06/2011 11:00 AM |

Season of the Witch
Directed by Dominic Sena

In Season of the Witch, a team of Crusades-deserters, hangers-on and a priest literally stop The Black Death with just their swords, a Latin prayer book and their shaken-but-restored faith in God. But really, it’s a movie about whether we should try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in civilian court. When the movie opens, Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman, playing Crusaders with an anachronistic repartee, kid each other nonchalantly about the number of enemies they’ll slay—joking that continues across a violent montage of the greatest Crusades of the 1330s and 40s. That youthful cockiness has a rude moral awakening within 15 years, in the face of a battle toll that includes women and children. What Christ would command this? So they desert God’s Army, abandoning battlefield for bubonically scarred countryside, its boilbubbled faces and mass graves of plaguecorpses. Sorcerer’s Apprentice this ain’t.

But neither is it Valhalla Rising. It’s a road movie, in which our Irregulars in Christ transport a suspected witch to a monk stronghold, and its temperament throughout is studio-approved, neutered, which claims no greater casualty than Cage. He’s a resolutely contemporary actor, and when playing an ancient magician or a Middle Ages warrior, he reads only as an L.A. brat playing dress-up. Period is not his thing. What is? His capacity for madness, his willingness—and, above all, his natural ability—to follow unstable characters, like the titular lead of The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, to their darkest edges. But in paycheck pictures like this, he’s rendered impotent by studio funding; it’s as though he’s been fed anti-depressants to keep his true, volatile self in check and his line readings soggy, stripped of feeling, wit or energy.

Screenwriter Bragi Schut and director Dominic Sena (Whiteout) devote their energies to a series of run time-extending set pieces, from crossing a rickety wooden bridge (eek!) to fending off a wolf attack (ow!). (The best of these is a chase through a muddy trench at midnight that the witch turns into something out of Solaris.) Together, the filmmakers exploit every medieval movie trope, from The Secret of Kells‘ bibliophilia to The Seventh Seal‘s self-flagellation and anxiety over the ostensible absence of the divine. (There’s even a ghostly, fog-shrouded forest; it, at times, feels like it’s borrowed the sets of a big-budget adaptation of The Legend of Zelda.) Departing from the Dark Ages in attitude, though, it’s bitterly anti-Church, an apostatic middle finger to the Vatican.

But Pre-Renaissance Catholics also serve as clear surrogates for modern-day Americans, particularly military-class (underscored by Cage’s campfire tale about an unscrupulous Crusades-recruiter). The film acknowledges that its heroes are compromised, murderers. But, despite its suggestions of moral ambiguity, Season of the Witch is a movie with good guys that have God on their side and a righteous mission to accomplish. Just like our War on Terror, the problem was never their objective (noble) but its leadership and execution (fallible). Cage spends the movie insisting on the witch’s right to a fair trial, but by the end even he can no longer defend her. Like terrorism, she’s a demon, an absolute evil. And you don’t try demons—you fight them with swords. And, er, Latin prayers.

Opens January 7