Labor Day weekend is a notorious dumping ground for films that the studios think are horrible and donít know what to do with. It is the time of year that has brought us cinematic train wrecks such as Chill Factor, A Sound of Thunder, and Paparazzi. When I heard that The Wicker Man was opening on this weekend, I was a little concerned. The film stars one of my favorite actors, Nicolas Cage, and was directed by Neil LaBute, whose other works I have greatly admired. Was it possible that they delivered a gigantic turkey? Well, not really. The release date is more a case of Warner Bros. recognizing that The Wicker Man is odd and trying to shoehorn it into an easily-saleable category that it doesnít quite belong to, on a weekend that is weak in the competition department. In other words, the movie isnít as mainstream as it appears. More on that in a moment.
In this remake of the 1973 chiller, Cage stars as Edward Malus, a cop who is traumatized after seeing a young woman and her daughter get nailed by a tractor trailer truck after he pulls them over. He takes some time off the force, then gets a mysterious letter from his former fiancťe, Willow (Kate Beahan). She begs for his help in finding her daughter, who has suspiciously gone missing. Malus heads to a tiny island off Puget Sound where Willow now lives.
The first thing he notices is that life on the island is weird with a capital W. Physically, the place looks like itís stuck in another era centuries ago. There are very few men around, and those who do appear never speak. Mostly itís women, led by Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), who seems to have everyone on the island under her spell. Malus starts asking questions about the little girl; some say she never existed, other say she recently died and Willow is having trouble accepting it.
No matter how much he pokes around, it seems impossible to get a straight answer. However, Malus does figure out that Sister Summersisle and the others are pagans who perform a yearly sacrifice the ďthe GoddessĒ in exchange for good crops. Suddenly it starts to appear that the little girl might be this yearís victim. He vows to find and save her before that can happen.
From the plot description, you might think that The Wicker Man is just about the last movie in the world that Neil LaBute would ever want to make. The director is more famous for artsy little films that deal with the cruelty men and women often inflict on each other (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, The Shape of Things). This, on the other hand, sounds like a mainstream pop-junk thriller. In reality, LaBute is merely using the thriller template as a way of exploring his favored subject. The Wicker Man plays more like an art film than a horror flick. Heís not so much interested in playing up the ďscaryĒ elements of the story as he is in showing how one man reacts to this environment where females are all-powerful and males are subservient. Malus reacts with escalating horror as he becomes overpowered by the unstoppable femininity on the island. As a cop, heís used to calling the shots. When that stops happening, itís a rude awakening for him. He wants to be the protector of the girl but, in some ways, it is he who needs protecting, as the pagan women are inherently devious toward him. The male/female dynamic isnít overtly spelled out, yet you can feel it in every frame.
As an admirer of his work, it was fascinating for me to see LaBute put his unique spin on the genre, but at the same time, the preexisting plot still has to adhere to some of its rules. There are several moments designed to make you jump or squirm. Scenes like these are not LaButeís specialty, and they feel awkward. Audiences expecting a flat-out horror experience will be disappointed by the filmís restraint. In fact, the combination of muted (almost subliminal) themes and traditional but low-key thriller elements would make The Wicker Man remake feel right at home in the late 60ís or early 70ís. In todayís horror market, though, it feels hopelessly old-fashioned.
On the other hand, it could reasonably be argued that this is not, in fact, a horror thriller but rather an extremely dark comedy. Those unfamiliar with LaButeís dark humor will probably misinterpret the movie as being unintentionally hilarious. Consider a scene near the end, where Malus attempts to infiltrate the sistersí ritual ceremony by wearing a bear suit. (Most of the women are already in animal masks, except for Summersisle, who dons Braveheart-style face paint.) This is the most blatant example of how LaBute inserts moments of humor to catch you off guard.
Then thereís the Wicker Man himself. If youíve seen the original, you know what he is. Iím not going to ruin it here, but his appearance in the final minutes makes total sense in terms of what LaBute is trying to do. The figure is representational, no doubt, of male paranoia at its most extreme. Strange as it all is, the ending at least made me realize why the director wanted to make this film.
All in all, I would categorize this as an interesting failure. I was never bored, and there was definitely some joy in seeing a top-notch filmmaker inject his personal, cynical, misanthropic worldview into a genre picture. But the more traditional thriller elements fail to thrill, and the story keeps us in the dark for too long. We are also led to believe that the opening accident is somehow connected with the things that take place on the island. I never quite understood how, though.
Iíve often said that Iíd much rather see a bad film from a great director than a good film from a mediocre director. Put another way, a flawed Neil LaBute movie is inherently more intriguing than, say, a decent film from the guy who directed The Benchwarmers. If you feel the same, then perhaps you might find The Wicker Man of some interest. But if youíre looking for a late summer/early fall scare, this will in no way be your cup of tea.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Wicker Man is rated PG-13 for disturbing images and violence, language and thematic issues. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.
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