The Wicker Man
There’s been a seemingly endless supply of remakes of ’70s movies since the turn of the millennium, most of which I’ve managed to avoid. I’ve yet to experience the dubious pleasures of Stallone’s Get Carter, Branagh’s Sleuth, or Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs, for example. I did have a vague interest in Neil La Bute’s take on The Wicker Man, however, given it has developed its very own cult reputation, of a “so bad it’s good” variety. Most of which rests on a typically eccentric Nicolas Cage performance, which I tend to be all for. But still, I was resistant, out of respect for the original. It seemed a sacrilegious act to have even gone there, which given the themes of Robin Hardy’s film might have been exactly why LaBute thought it was fair game.
“Not the bees!”, is the key quoted line from the remake, which isn’t even in the original theatrical cut (like the 1973 film, this Wicker Man has a cult following, and like the 1973 film it also has its very own legacy of alternate versions; the context is entirely less respectful, of course). Such is the thespian excess on display in the climactic sequence, it has inspired numerous mocking/celebrating YouTube clips. I’d like to be able to affirm the picture’s revised reputation as a cult comedy classic, but while it undoubtedly features a raft of inspired, lunatic moments, mostly down to Nic himself (Cage says he knew all along it was absurd, but his performances often suggest he’s the only person in a movie who sees the material that way), it remains some considerable distance from such exalted status.
While the remake’s adulterated premise arguably lends itself to the preposterous, and one might read it as LaBute caricaturing – or poking the badger, or bear, with regards to his critics – the accusations of misogyny that had cropped up in his previous work (albeit a misanthropic inclination has always been the most pervasive charge; I don’t think there’s much arguing with that one), there simply isn’t enough besides Cage to support that.
LaBute has never been one for the subtler elements, preferring to tackle his subjects head on. Hence the ungainly decision, whatever is precise root “inspiration” may have been, to engineer a gender reversal on characters from the original; “Summersisle” is now transposed to America, and presided over by a rather stiff matriarch (Ellen Burstyn). Many of the alterations are relatively cosmetic, and the picture suffers accordingly, despite its hyperbolic (Nic) elements. Instead of devising an at-least-interesting take on esteemed material, one mostly finds oneself conscious of how scenes have been lifted wholesale from the original, right down repeating the dialogue, and concluding that change has been made for change’s sake rather than any really good reason.
True, Cage’s Edward Malus (really?) is somewhat different to Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie. Which is for the good; a straightjacketed Cage would have been a death sentence to the picture. Malus’s motorcycle cop is most definitely non- virginal, his lure to the island being an ex and (eventually) the prospect that he’s the father of her “missing” daughter. Rather than brandishing Woodward’s (his ex, played by Karre Beahan, is named Willow Woodward; I’m not sure the “tribute” to the actor is really warranted) self-righteous moral fervour, Cage is inimitably Cage, and at intervals gloriously entertaining with it. He’s prone to an unfortunate bee allergy, manifested in deliriously deliberate fashion, particularly so given he is visiting an island known for its honey production where fields are mown in the shape of honeycombs. He even dresses up as a bear at the climax, since we know what their greatest love is, and what they don’t much care for in tandem with that.
If the picture rather traces its way along the lines of Robin Hardy’s film for the first two-thirds, it becomes energetically over-the-top in time for the grand finale. It’s not enough that Cage is swatting bees as if they’re flies, or exclaiming repeatedly “How’d it get burned?!” of his daughter’s doll; he’s compelled to draw his gun and instruct cyclist Molly Parker to “Get off the bike! Get off the bike! Step away, from the bike!”. Then he lays out Dena Delano, before drop-kicking Leelee Sobieski and running about in aforementioned bear outfit (encumbered by which, he punches more of the island’s womenfolk). When he’s finally accosted, spitting “You bitches!”, his ankles are broken in a moment closer to the sort of surreal comedy you’d expect from The Goodies than horror (“AHHH, my legs!”). His cloistering within the Wicker Man is antically memorable too, ushered to his doom with the chant of “The drone must die!”
All of which might suggest LaBute was also on board in making the film “absurd”. Aside from being a rather inane mission (assuming he had any respect for the original), though, such mentalist flair isn’t in sufficient supply. And the thematic material that remains is either too literal or under-nourished. The duelling belief systems motif is effectively dropped, since Cage doesn’t believe, leaving him to wonder how, as an outsider, his sacrifice has any value. And the gender divisions are plain clumsy and hackneyed – or perhaps just absurd. I did rather like the – overdone – bee motif, but even that aspect, which has connotations of shamanic practice, is awarded a very pedestrian interpretation.
Still, given The Wicker Man remake’s reputation – the one that doesn’t allow for it being a comedy – as some kind of nadir in movie taste, recognised as such with five Golden Razzie nominations, it’s not unwatchable, or in its own way un-entertaining. Its greatest strength is Cage (I wonder what LaBute must think, given this is by far his best-known feature), elevating every scene he’s in whether the scene likes it or not, but those clip compilations rather do the film more favours than it deserves as a piece of demented genius (I don’t doubt, though, that if you’re watching in a sufficiently altered state, it is the funniest film ever). On top of which, however you cut it, having the ubiquitous James Franco show up in the final scene is unforgivable.