The Wicker Man

There are some films, like 1973’s “The Wicker Man”, whose cult status seems to me like it was obtained through magic-or perhaps pagan rituals. I don’t understand how something so kooky and ordinary can be esteemed by fans as being anything more than an hour or so of weirdness bolstered somewhat by an uncompromising ending. Now we get a below-par remake helmed by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things), certainly not a name associated with genre films.

The first thing I have to say about “The Wicker Man” is that before I plunged deeply into its “mystique” by renting the original, I must confess I thought it actually featured a man made of wicker. Wouldn’t that have been something? But no, it turns out that wicker men were giant structures made of tree branches and designed to contain animal and human sacrifices in pagan societies. It’s not too clear whether they actually existed or not, but my bet is they did in some way, shape or form.

My initial thoughts that I was going to see an actual wicker man, in the tradition of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, kind of reminded me of the time when my best friend rented the Eddie Murphy vehicle Metro only to find out it wasn’t about subway shenanigans but instead referred to the police beat in metro areas.

In the 2006 version of the Wicker Man, Nicolas Cage plays Edward Malus, a California highway patrol cop who goes to a remote Puget Sound island community called Summersisle to investigate a report that a little girl has gone missing. Unlike in the original film, where the village revealed itself to be a haven for pagan songs, beliefs and rituals contrasting with-and shocking- the devout Christian policeman played by Edward Woodward, the new Summersisle looks and feels more like an Amish outpost in the middle of nowhere. The island is led by Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), who has turned the place into a female-driven utopia, where all the women are Sisters and all the men are nearly mute labourers. LaBute’s films tend to be flat, self-absorbed portrayals of male-female relationships, and I’m confused as to how, if at all, his reinterpretation of the material fits within his output. “The Wicker Man” is his first genre film, and I don’t think we have a good match here. Right from the get-go a certain aimlessness permeates the film, starting with a puzzling highway crash-and-rescue scene involving an enigmatic little girl. Things don’t get any better on the island, where Cage has two acting modes: completely befuddled or suddenly hysterical.

LaBute doesn’t explore religious extremism in any kind of meaningful way, nor does he offer insights into the blind faith, lynch mob mentality that is central to the film’s bleak final moments, thankfully unchanged except for a clumsy, unnecessary “sometime later” add-on of the kind you expect to see, rightly or wrongly, in horror films. Kate Beahan, for one, never seems to know how to play Sister Willow, Edward’s ex-fiancée (is she ambivalent or not?). And while Burstyn is not a bad choice, the question remains as to why LaBute deemed it necessary to overhaul the island’s gender hierarchy. Cage is not the best casting decision, but he’s saddled with streaky dialogue and a few scenes that are just plain silly (the one where he commandeers a bicycle at gunpoint and gamely rides the antiquated model through rough terrain is a classic of the absurd, although it might work as transportation irony given that he’s also the awesome Ghost Rider, coming next February). Not all that surprisingly to me, British Columbia’s Molly Parker (Men with Brooms, Rare Birds, The Good Shepherd) offers the strongest supporting performance as elementary school teacher Sister Rose. Parker has the kind of guarded beauty one would want to do extra homework for, if you will.

The original Wicker Man was in large part about the outrage expressed by Woodward’s deeply religious cop at the island’s pagan mores and nature-oriented beliefs, which gave the film a New Age, counter-culture vibe that grabs your attention, but only periodically. LaBute’s film is even less focused: his motives are unclear, and the execution belies, I would suggest, a lack of affinity for the pacing and narrative choices that would have made his “Wicker Man” a much sharper thriller. Judging from the very minimal, last-minute advertising and the lack of press screenings, I think Warner Bros. knew the movie was a major misfire. But hey, all was not lost: at least I got to see the top-notch trailer for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay