07 January 2007

The Wicker Man

When I first heard that Neil LaBute would be writing and directing a new version of The Wicker Man, I was a bit surprised. The 1973 cult horror-musical is a film whose central themes are religious, telling the story of a devout Christian detective’s adventures on an island full of promiscuous pagans. The idea of a Wicker redux would seem better suited to Mel Gibson; after all, in films like Your Friends and Neighbors, LaBute has established himself as the go-to guy for cinematic studies of modern relationships. (Arguably, he is foremost a playwright; he was recently named the playwright-in-residence for the MCC Theater Company.) It’s like hearing Whit Stillman is remaking Dracula.

But LaBute adapted the material to his own recurring concerns – his detective’s not religious, his island isn’t sexy (to score the PG-13 rating I’m sure), and while the residents seem to practice a harvest-and-fertility-obsessed paganism, their religious practices take a back seat to the island’s real quirk – matriarchy! Gone is Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle, replaced by the confident Ellen Burstyn’s Sister Summersisle, den mother and queen bee of the predominantly female island, where the marginalized men, basically walking phalluses with muscles, are either unable or not allowed to speak.

This is LaBute’s worst nightmare, a place where he’d have to pay for the all the terrible things that Aaron Eckhardt’s character did in In the Company of Men. (Incidentally, Mr. Eckhardt has a brief and amusing cameo at the very beginning of the fim.) Nicolas Cage, as highway patrolman Edward Malus, travels to Summersisle, a private island community off the coast of Washington state, at the request of his erstwhile fiancĂ©e. She has a daughter, who’s gone missing, and she needs his investigatory help. But Cage can’t get a straight answer from anyone – is the girl even missing? Is she dead? Does she even exist?

Most of the film drags along, with pretentious flashbacks, stiff performances, and cheap, thrill-less “thrills”, such as a floor that caves-in! But in the final act the film gains momentum; LaBute gets cooking and the island comes alive for the first time, as Cage madly peregrinates, bumping into all sorts of creepy natives and beating the shit out of Leelee Sobieski. The “twist” is the same as in the original, but it's executed from different motivations. In the end, it's a reactionary tale of paranoid misogyny, but one ultimately so deeply and genuinely felt it’s difficult to ignore altogether.

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