Directed by: Neil LaBute
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy
Neil LaBute is neither stupid nor untalented. I say this upfront because questions concerning both topics are apt to arise from anyone who actually sits through his remake of Robin Hardy's 1973 film The Wicker Man. I should also note that I am not coming to this as someone with any kind of "how dare he" axe to grind about remaking the original. As an avowed admirer of many things cinematic that are cult or horror or both, I have a somewhat unorthodox take on the original. That's to say I find it a vaguely unpleasant movie that's about as entertaining and exciting as watching water evaporate -- maybe less so, since that process might at least yield steam. Here, LaBute has hardly improved on the original -- except in the area of increased laughs, which I don't think was the idea. Oh, the production values are better this round, and LaBute is a more accomplished filmmaker than Hardy, but neither is enough to keep the new film from being two train wrecks' worth of silliness and a couple carloads of nonsense.
The basic premise has more or less been retained -- a policeman encounters a strange cult of inhospitable locals when he investigates a disappearance on a remote island -- which means that anyone familiar with the old film knows exactly where the story is going. And if you don't know the original, the trailer at the very least gives you a pretty strong hint. This is not a good thing in a film riding on the concept that it has a shocking ending. The only thing shocking here is the spectacle of Nicolas Cage decking Diane Delano (The Ladykillers) and appropriating her bear suit (yes, bear suit) so he can blend in with the other pagans during a celebration. And if that sounds like something out of an old Bob Hope comedy, rest assured it plays exactly that way too. I was tempted to start whistling "The Teddy Bears' Picnic," which might have helped.
This isn't the only risible moment in the film. The dialogue is only slightly less affected than the torturous period-speak of The Village (2004). The dramatics are about on par with really bad community theater. And it would be kindest not to even speak about Ellen Burstyn in full Mel Gibson Braveheart makeup during the pagan ritual at the end. The original may have featured Christopher Lee at his pompous worst in the equivalent role, but at least he wasn't just plain embarrassing.
For that matter, it would be kindest not to mention the pagan ritual at all, since it looks for all the world like a cheesy renaissance fair with a bunch of folks dressed up in dime-store masks. This might have worked. I've seen it work in Ken Russell's no-budget video film The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002) where equally cheap masks were used to unsettling effect, because the proceedings captured an authentic whiff of madness and hysteria. The participants here are too well behaved and decorous to come across as anything other than dress extras in bunny rabbit masks. The most frightening thing about any of this is that LaBute and company actually thought it was frightening.
LaBute's attempts to create a somewhat different story by moving the action to the U.S. and re-monkeying the main character's relationship to the pagan cult simply don't work. I can only suppose that LaBute thought -- and probably rightly so -- that no one was likely to buy Nicolas Cage as a religious zealot and virgin (that was the case with Edward Woodward in the original), but the scenario he cooked up to replace this is awkward and finally preposterous. The film's opening -- where Cage's character fails to save a young girl (Erika-Shaye Gair, R.V.) from a burning car -- becomes, by the film's ending, the most ridiculous, contrived and convoluted bit of plotting imaginable.
It hardly helps that Cage plays the entire film like a thick slice of something you won't find in a kosher deli. In the original, Edward Woodward played an unlikable prig, but this was explained by his hardcore religiosity. Cage's character is just unpleasant for no very good reason. If it weren't for the fact that Cage served as a producer on the film, you'd think he was simply in a vile mood over having signed to play the role in the first place.
I'm not sure what to make of LaBute's decision to make the cult into a matriarchal society, but the results are bound to raise the questions of misogyny that plagued his first film, In the Company of Men (1997). The women here are all predatory and figuratively castrating (they do appear to cut out their menfolk's tongues) -- to a degree that Cage's character is driven to punch-out two of them (one he actually kicks in the face) during the course of the film. It's impossible not to get a sense of serious anger issues where women are concerned here.
A few of the scenes are actually fairly creepy, suggesting that LaBute could make a decent horror picture, but this dull, distasteful and unintentionally hilarious movie isn't it. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images and violence, language and thematic issues.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke