The Wicker Man
Director : Neil LaBute
Screenplay : Neil LaBute (based on a by Anthony Schaffer)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Nicolas Cage (Edward Malus), Ellen Burstyn (Sister Summersisle), Kate Beahan (Sister Willow), Frances Conroy (Dr. Moss), Molly Parker (Sister Rose / Sister Thorn), Leelee Sobieski (Sister Honey), Diane Delano (Sister Beech), Michael Wiseman (Pete), Erika-Shaye Gair (Rowan)
Another week, another remake of a '70s cult horror favorite, except this time the new spin is coming not from another music video veteran trying to break into feature films, but from playwright / indie auteur / bitter misanthrope Neil LaBute, who has taken Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man and changed it from a mystery-shocker about religious conflict to a mystery-shocker about gender conflict. That's right: LaBute has made a straight-out horror movie that doubles as another chapter in his cinematic gender war that began with 1997's scalding In the Company of Men.
Nicolas Cage stars as Edward Malus, a dedicated cop who is traumatized by his failure to save a mother and her daughter from a fiery car wreck. His chance for redemption arrives in the form of an unexpected letter from Willow (Kate Beahan), his former fiancee who unexpectedly left him and broke his heart years earlier. Willow has since moved back to Summerisle, a small, remote farming commune located on a private island in Puget Sound. Her letter begs him to come to Summerisle to help her find her missing daughter.
Summerisle, as it turns out, is an unwelcoming place for Edward, and not just because he is an outsider. The commune is an ancient matriarchy in which women are in complete control and the few men who exist on the island are mute and subservient (although it is never clarified exactly, it is suggested that they have had their tongues cut out). The island's chief product is honey, which allows LaBute to use the idea of the hive as the overriding metaphor for the island's social structure, with Ellen Burstyn's chilly Sister Summerisle as the ultimate queen bee.
For those who haven't seen the original, The Wicker Man will certainly maintain attention, even if Edward's investigation proceeds at a snail's pace and is fraught with many more obstacles than discoveries; Cage's performance is relatively low-key, although he is allowed a few sarcastic outbursts and bouts of frustration. LaBute does a fine job of creating an atmosphere of otherworldly weirdness on the island, the kind in which you know something is desperately wrong, but can't quite put your finger on exactly what. In his first foray into genre territory, LaBute seems a bit unsure of how to maintain tension, though, and he resorts far too often to hammy flashbacks of the film's opening accident to create forced shock moments the film doesn't need.
The Wicker Man, both here and in its 1973 version, is really more of a peculiar mystery story than a horror movie. Its horror elements don't take shape until the shocker climax, in which the true nature of Edward's visit to the island comes into sudden focus. It was always one of the great movie revelations, one that was so carefully hidden (yet ironically in your face if you knew the title and had a little knowledge of pagan practices) and thoughtfully constructed that it genuinely took you by surprise like a slap in the face, but left your stomach gnawed and in knots as you considered the implications.
Part of the original's effectiveness derived from the main character, whose strong religious convictions were ultimately used against him in the most sinister of ways, a dimension the new film is sorely lacking. LaBute's climax lacks some of the punch of the original because his narrative reasoning has been significantly weakened by his removal of the protagonist's Christianity. In the original, Edward was a devout Catholic, which put him in immediate conflict with the openly sexual paganism of Summerisle, but also was key to what happens in the film's final moments. By switching the conflict from religion to gender, LaBute softens the ironic edge of the climax's shock value, even as he ramps up the insidiousness of what happens by turning it into a manipulative female power grab. All the original's religious-phallic symbols (including a maypole and some very carefully trimmed bushes) have been replaced with threatening womb images (especially a dank, flooded crypt).
In a way, The Wicker Man is a gender-reverse mirror image of In the Company of Men, with a group of women insidiously manipulating a man by preying on his by-the-book male tendencies. Unfortunately, LaBute doesn't take his gender twist far enough by asking some of the truly intriguing questions about the nature of men and women and how the female dominion over the commune at Summerisle changes its social structure and functioning. Rather, he uses the twisted matriarchy to generate male paranoia and arguably misogynistic thrills once Edward begins fighting back, which seems a cheap route to take for a filmmaker capable of so much more.
Copyright © 2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © 2006 Warner Bros.