Movie Review: The Last Witch Hunter
By Ben Gruchow
October 28, 2015
The supporting characters - Rose Leslie as Chloe, a contemporary witch who’s much more concerned with keeping her bar open than casting spells on humans, along with Caine and Elijah Wood as assisting members of a kind of clergy - also strike notes that are broad but true. The things they say and do generally fit within the fabric of the universe and the setting the movie is putting forward. There are a few moments that even approach poignancy, generally those involving moments when Wood’s Dolan or Leslie’s Chloe.
Movies like this walk a fine line between working and not working, and it’s not a small gap between the two variables. A big chunk of the reason why bad films in this particular genre of fantasy mysticism are bad is because they don’t ring true. They try too hard to evoke an atmosphere and mood and character resonance that the screenwriting hasn’t earned. Perhaps the only recent film of this type I can think of that fell prey to this failing, while still succeeding as an entertainment, was 2005’s Constantine. Of course, Constantine was directed by Francis Lawrence, and he supplemented a weak story with vivid, precise, artful visuals.
The Last Witch Hunter does not have a craftsman of the same expertise at the helm, and while the movie contains impressive production design and some really rather beautiful imagery - a tableau of individuals facing a radically alternative New York City in one of the movie’s many hallucinatory visions is particularly lush and gorgeous, for all the wrong reasons, and it’s one of the movie’s best visuals - it relies on its levity to buoy it through the multiple storylines and plot twists, to a denouement that is less an opening for a sequel than a premature commitment to one. Even equipped with that levity, it’s ragged enough around the edges for me to easily comprehend a viewer reaction where the movie’s hook fails to stick the landing, and without the viewer buying that hook, The Last Witch Hunter looks an awful lot like a mess.
I bought it. I found myself surprised 40 or so minutes in at how much I’d accepted the material on its terms, and how interested I’d become in seeing more of this world. I found myself liking the way that the actors inhabited broad characters with ease and confidence, and liking Diesel’s take on an archetype. The humor is generally objectively good from the viewpoints of timing and intonation.
And even if the story and characters don’t agree with you, the movie is visually absorbing: I can easily remember the visual of dozens of supernatural prisoners imprisoned and linked, spiderweb-style, within the stone walls of a catacomb, even if I don’t quite understand what’s wrong with just lining them up single-file. The Witch Queen is a sight to behold: with what looks like a spare spinal column dragging out of the back of her head, burned and flaking skin, rotten teeth, covered in locusts. There is a mercenary creature that seems to be all root and thorns and fiery gaping maw. The creators of this movie had a lot of fun making it, and that comes through.