Review: The Wicker Man

Left mentally scarred after witnessing a roadside accident killing an innocent woman and her daughter, police officer Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) cannot shake the images of the day out of his head. When a puzzling note from his former fiancee (Kate Beahan, "Flightplan") arrives begging him to help find her lost daughter, Edward soon books passage for the remote Washington island where she resides. Once there, Edward begins his investigation, poking around a matriarchal society (run by Ellen Burstyn), and losing himself to the madness that is uncovered with every new step.

On paper, it seemed like a sure bet. A "Wicker Man" (IMDb listing) remake, starring Nicolas Cage, and directed by Neil LaBute? Count me in. Then came the awful one-sheet, the humiliating Labor Day weekend release date, and finally, the absence of a proper and respectful press screening. Now that the picture is out in the world to be seen ... well, all the dodging makes sense now.

As much as it's revered in horror circles, I don't believe Robin Hardy's 1973 feature "The Wicker Man" approaches the "classic" status some have bent over backwards to stamp on it. It's an atmospheric movie, led by a thundering lead performance from the great Edward Woodward (and a sly one from Christopher Lee), and includes an unforgettable climax that disturbs and provokes, like the best cinema of the 1970s did. It's a cult treasure that tends to run a little loopy if not put in proper context, but its tendency to overheat was its greatest downfall.

Neil LaBute (who also scripts) doesn't have much luck updating the story for modern audiences. The switch from a free-flowing Scottish pagan community to a matriarchal system is the largest alteration, but that robs the film of the primal sexual appeal the original held. In other words, no midnight orgies on the campground, and no nude Britt Ekland musical numbers here, my friends. LaBute has ripped all the sexual subtext and tension right out of the story, electing to turn to bees to put across the theme of pollination, or a lack thereof.

LaBute is a talented filmmaker, even if his button-pushing films rarely hit their intended targets. Yet, "Wicker Man" consistently eludes his good judgment, and soon the film is a real chore to watch. By robbing the film of its lust and eerie pagan undertones, the remake just becomes a series of impotent PG-13 suspense set-pieces, built on an ice cold mystery that never reaches a fever pitch.

Even good old reliable Nicolas Cage fumbles badly here. I normally adore when the actor goes overboard, but in "Wicker Man," Cage's instincts fail him. This is a wildly miscalculated performance, and you can see in his desperate face that Cage was fully trusting LaBute to not make him look like a fool. As the actor goes bigger, LaBute doesn't know how to use the performance, and when Cage is left without proper support, the results are ear-splitting. I give Cage credit for even attempting to walk in Woodward's shoes here, but with LaBute slapping around the story so he can call it his own, the character is left a raving maniac instead of the frightening portrayal of bewilderment and sexual repression that it should've been.

When "Wicker Man" finally gets something going in the iconic final act, it brings along with it a host of unintentional laughs. The original film did such a masterful job getting under the skin, layering dread with bleak precision. In the remake, LaBute has Cage beating up women with karate kicks, and placing an insulting coda on the film that screams of studio intervention of the worst kind. This is not progress.

Filmfodder Grade: D-