In The Wicker Man, Nicolas Cage pretends to be a police officer and a nice man, and director Neil LaBute has aspirations for only the former. What exactly is he policing? Women, or at least, his own internal dread about women ever having any remote semblance of power or control in society. And he isn’t even trying to hide himself under a veneer of velvety niceness.
He also isn’t doing a good job of proving the validity of his immoral quest, as though that were possible, and he isn’t doing a good job of anything else either. When we begin, police office Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage, right smack in the middle of one of his least discerning periods) suffers a tragic accident (of the sort movie characters are wont to suffer). While recovering, he receives a letter from his ex-fiance Willow informing him that their daughter has disappeared, and that she (the ex-fiance) would like his help in figuring out what exactly happened. A letter which prompts Cage to brood and stare his way over to the island of Summerisle where Willow is a member of what turns out to be a pagan commune. Things, as you can predict from any horror film involving the world “pagan”, get worse from there.
Now, “those evil non-Christians” is undeniably part and parcel with the spirit of the film, as it was in the original 1973 Wicker Man upon which this film is based. But LaBute very much wishes to avoid religion in the text all together. He is of the smugly modernist sort where antiseptic, non-combative non-theism is the order of the day; he doesn’t wish to say anything about religion because that would force him to sacrifice his real pet theme: the evils of women, and his own deep-seated male fear of feminist society (a fear he is non-critical of by the looks of the film). Implicit in the film, and it seems almost impossible to read it any other way, is that if women attain any semblance of social control, they will use it to abuse and trick men and reduce them to pallid shadows of their former selves.
Which is not a “new” theme for horror cinema, nor one that, if we are honest, is necessarily antithetical to artistic success. An immoral film can be a well-made one, thus complicating the morality even further. The Wicker Man is not a well-made film though, and thus the rampaging, adamant, curdled misogyny of the piece breeds little cognitive dissonance about whether it is “okay” to think an immoral film is still “good”. The disgusting immorality of the material is matched only by the hamstrung filmmaking failing to even convey the horridly gendered script without stepping all over its perturbed male-dominant foot.
Thankfully, Cage generally being bored with himself is the only element of the film that operates at anything less than a fever pitch. The cinematography, for instance, all chiaroscuro and maudlin, absolutely shouts “horror movie” at the top of its lungs. So loud in fact that it is too distracted and out of breath to actually do any scaring (the same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Cage’s leather elbow pads). Plainly, Labute aspires to be a talented man, and he wants to show that he knows how to hold off and tease and build up unnerving apprehension, but his slick filmmaking is too clean-cut to ever arrive at the ragged, uncanny woe of the dejected original 1973 film.
LaBute clearly wishes to provide a few words for so-called “modern horror” (2006 was the height of the show and show show torture porn genre) by holding back and favoring “terror”, or the apprehension of what will happen in a state of the uncanny, over the “horror” of simply showing and reviling that which has been placed before you. Fine in principle, but it leads to a portentous, pretentious bore of a film that teases, and teases ineptly at that, and then has the nerve to assume its own superiority to everything else coming out in the genre at the time (especially in relation to Neil Marshall’s potently adult treatment of real women with real problems in The Descent, released not one year before, The Wicker Man hurts mightily in comparison). At the least when it does get to “showing”, it achieves a certain twitchy nonsensical quality that, while bad, is at least cartoonishly bad with a certain wrong-headed fire. Still a shame for a remake of one of the finest horror films ever released, by a far cry from the torpid badness of the great majority of the film.
Really, it is only in this final stage of the film when it comes alive at all. Earlier on, LaBute seems too focused, too tame, too clean and precise, and ultimately too manicured and preserved to ever actually accomplish anything outside of wallowing in his own abject fear of womanhood. The last act, genuinely singing its looney tune with the true Warner Bros. spirit, is naughtily watchable in its own off-kilter, formless silliness. When LaBute loses any interest in cleanly building suspense and turns his film into a mindless parade of treats like Nicolas Cage in a bear suit punching a woman for little reason, at least the material becomes so inspired in its inopportune stupidity that it almost seems like some sort of art film that wandered into the multiplex houses, like a weird trick being pulled on the audience or a commentary on the silliness of genderism in horror films .
The film isn’t a trick or a commentary, though. It is, for most of its run-time, a stone-faced and glum slice of the remake blues at their most abrasive. The worst thing, however, is that nothing about The Wicker Man feels cynical at all. This isn’t corporate badness, but personal badness, the badness of a man’s heart aggressively attempting to paint the screen in his personal worries and difficulties and to convince people that he is right in his fears. Again, what better sort of badness to prove endlessly watchable than personal badness with a difference? But with such a cringe-inducing morality governing the piece, it really hurts to keep going, and the film doesn’t do anything to cause you to doubt your own instincts.
At one point in the film, a character smugly retorts to Cage “wow, the plot thickens, and I didn’t even know you had a plot”. Checkmate, Neil LaBute. Many filmmakers have instigated all manner of wonders in all manner of artistic ways over the century-plus thus far of cinema. Few have managed to sum up their film in one line as well as you.
So how good is it really?: 1/5 (not soul-destroying, but it tries really hard to get you there)
But how “good” is it?: 2.5/5 ( a pretty even split between the somber and draggy early portions and the manically silly latter film)