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The Wicker Man   D+

Warner Bros. Pictures / Saturn Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Neil LaBute
Writer: Neil LaBute
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Leelee Sobieski, Diane Deland.

Review by Rob Vaux

Try as I might, I've never really warmed to the work of Neil LaBute. His films are effective, certainly, and I appreciate his willingness to take hard concepts to their disturbing conclusions, but I just can't get behind his central thesis of sexual betrayal. His films posit the gender divide as a gulf of unremitting nastiness, punctuated by monstrous acts of one-upsmanship that shatter their intended targets on both sides. Powerful? Sure. But also nakedly manipulative, shamelessly exploitative, and espousing a worldview where trust and human companionship are evils to be feared. Having said that, I concede his share of adherents, and if his artistic vision angers me, then at least it's a genuine vision -- with genuine talent behind it -- and not some half-baked studio hustle out for a quick buck.

And yet that's one of The Wicker Man's numerous problems. It tries to reinterpret LaBute's charged message in a more commercially pleasing form, presenting his male/female jihad in the guise of an upscale horror film. It doesn't work. Nor does the fact that this particular horror film is based on a 1973 cult classic, whose delicately creepy atmosphere can't survive a lot of clumsy changes. The equation is simple: LaBute's art-house misogyny + Warner Bros' need for a late-summer horror flick + a niche mood exercise that doesn't exactly scream for the multiplex treatment = one big mess.

At least star Nicholas Cage arrives at the project honestly, having professed a long-standing admiration for the original. He plays Edward Malus, a California cop whose inability to prevent a fatal accident leaves him in troubled search of redemption. Then out of the blue, he receives a letter from an old flame (Kate Beahan), who left him in the lurch many years ago, but now needs his help. Her young daughter has disappeared -- kidnapped, she suspects, by members of the strange commune with whom she lives -- and she's terrified of what might happen to her. She begs Malus to travel out to the commune, ensconced on a private island in the Pacific Northwest, and help find the missing girl.

The setup is fine -- a slight departure from the original, but carrying interesting narrative heft all its own -- and DP Paul Sarossy brings a sense of eerily unwholesome vigor to the island's bucolic greenery. But once Malus arrives, the proceedings quickly begin to deteriorate. The cult has established its own society away from the mainland, devoid of phones, televisions, or technology of any sort. The rules are "different" here, and life follows some very disturbing rhythms. Just how disturbing was one of the unique aspects of the original film, whose fanatical neo-pagans were fastidiously researched and formed an unsettling counterpoint to the protagonist's smug, intolerant Calvinism. But here, LaBute inserts his gender dynamics into the mix. The trappings of paganism remain, but are overlaid with a matriarchal power structure patterned after bee colonies. The leader, Lady Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn) acts as a queen, while the women beneath her serve as workers, and the few men on the island are hapless drones: their numbers limited by unquiet methods that LaBute wisely implies without making explicit.

All well and good... except that the concept clashes awkwardly with the remaining pagan elements, which no one thought to clean up and whose connection to the new material is shaky at best. Add to that a series of utterly nonsensical details conjured mainly for knee-jerk creepiness (twins who speak in unison, implied supernatural powers, etc.), and the resulting society utterly fails to convince. In the process, it knocks a major supporting beam away from the film's entire raison d'etre. The original version achieved much because its disturbing world was so plausible: every aspect served some viable purpose, every little detail resonated with eerie conviction. Here, it all feels like a half-assed stunt, with details chosen more as gimmicks than believable background material. For all of LaBute's traditional fearlessness, he shies away from the most provocative bits of the original (such as children speaking openly about sex), and replaces them with Malus' poorly justified bouts of politically incorrect anger.

It doesn't get much farther as a horror film either. LaBute has an excellent sense of emotional savagery, but his efforts to deliver more technical jolts fall disastrously into cliché. The old "it was only a dream" chestnut pops up far too often, while the necessary sense of menace and surprise never really catches hold. Malus has an allergy to bees, for example, but its predictable development (the commune produces honey as its main source of income) feels more incidental than suspenseful. Similarly, the climactic twist retains a certain horrifying power, but also falls short in the logic department, raising simple questions that the film's unwieldy structure cannot answer. Cage... well, Cage has been better (though the screenplay saddles him with some supremely awkward dialogue), and the yeoman work of the largely female supporting cast is often tainted by the underlying implications of their roles. I know that sexual betrayal is LaBute's bread and butter, but suggesting that the film's monstrous evil is a result of female empowerment leaves a thoroughly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

The director has the courage of his convictions, I'll grant him that. And his work here suggests that -- for better or worse -- he's willing to experiment with more mainstream fare. But his auteurial stamp causes far more problems for The Wicker Man than it solves, producing an interesting failure that -- like so many before it -- just can't compete with the infinitely superior original. Perhaps it should have stuck more closely to its predecessor. Perhaps it should have dropped all pretense and launched an entirely original exploration of the same ideas. Perhaps it's just that Christopher Lee will always be scarier than Ellen Burstyn. Whatever the reason, The Wicker Man proves supremely unnecessary, working very hard to justify itself, but succeeding only in reminding us how much better it was the first time.

Review published 09.03.2006.

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