The Wicker Man (2006) Movie Review

The new version of The Wicker Man is a surprisingly tony addition to the new class of horror remakes, adapted and directed not by a disgraced former action director or a newbie music-video director but arthouse mainstay Neil LaBute; starring not a WB star paying his or her dues, but Nicolas Cage.

I haven't seen the original Wicker Man (or read the novel on which it was based), but apparently the major change to the story - about a cop visiting a remote island commune to investigate the disappearance of a young girl - is, appropriate to LaBute's resume (In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things), a gender switch. Whereas the original island was overseen by Christopher Lee, this one has Ellen Burstyn as Sister Summersisle, who oversees a flock of women conducting themselves with creepy calm. Men are present, in tiny clusters, but seem resigned mainly to lifting things in silence.

Edward Malus (Cage) is summoned to the island by his long-missing ex-girlfriend, now Sister Willow (Kate Beahan), who is convinced that her young daughter has been abducted by someone on the island. In a show of sisterly solidarity, the other Sisters refuse to acknowledge the missing girl's existence; in a show of manly stoicism (or is it deference?), the men say nothing.

Cage initially seems to be in Hollywood everyman mode as the haunted cop, but, as the movie's main man, he has the space to give a typically unboring performance, as Malus becomes equally pompous and frustrated during his investigation. It's one of the movie's best details that Malus isn't really a detective, but a highway patrolman who doesn't seem to know much about real investigations; he flashes his badge, barks questions, and does his best to coarsen up this would-be utopia. The women look cold and prim, and have none of it.

It's not clear what point LaBute is trying to make with Malus's clumsy masculinity or the women's smug avoidance; keeping his past work in mind, he most likely takes them all as creeps of some kind or another.

But if LaBute has odd, creepy fun with Cage, he has a lot less luck with the movie itself - with horror-film musts like, say, suspense, or scares. The rest of the characters pop in and out of the movie, taking turns glowering or quavering in Cage's presence, and LaBute's dialogue sounds stuck in playwright mode - stiff and overly precise. In his dramas and dark comedies, LaBute's characters speak with undertones and overtones of menace; when faced with an actual horror movie, that menace doesn't break the surface. Instead, the movie has a lot of halfhearted conversations and pedestrian bits from the horror playbook: Cage sneaking around at night; Cage having disturbing visions; Cage flipping out towards a twist ending (preserved from the original I'm told) that (in this case) raises as many questions as it answers.

It's a shame, because LaBute's bloody gender battles could make a fine garnish to the routine of modern horror; he should take another shot someday (keeping Cage around couldn't hurt). His Wicker Man, 2006 style, has plenty of superficial intrigue and potential interpretations, but nothing there in the middle to connect those ends. The whole movie is a wicker doll - competently constructed and empty in the middle.

Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads.


The Wicker Man (2006) Rating

" Grim "

Rating: PG-13, 2006


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