Saturday, September 02, 2006

Review - The Wicker Man

Why? That was the question on my mind as I sat down to watch The Wicker Man. Why bother remaking a film which is so well crafted and so much a product of its particular time and place? Of course, Hollywood has never shown a great deal of thought or imagination when revamping films from the past; but even so, a Hollywood version of The Wicker Man never seemed like a good idea. What could writer/director Neil Labute bring to a new version of The Wicker Man which would make its existence worthwhile?

After viewing this startlingly inept remake, I was no closer to answering those questions. The film strips away everything that made Robin Hardy's 1973 film feel so special, and what's left on screen is a ghastly mish-mash of flashbacks, red herrings, bad acting and atrocious storytelling. The film has been given a weird feminist slant which doesn't work in any way, and even when The Wicker Man comes with one of cinema's most chilling endings already as part of the package, Labute and co. still manage to screw it up.

This new take on The Wicker Man follows the original's basic story but doesn't capture any of its soul. Nicolas Cage is traffic cop Edward Malus, and the film opens with him failing to rescue a mother and daughter from a burning car (after a crazily implausible accident). The incident leaves Malus traumatised, and a traumatised Nicolas Cage is not a pretty sight. Right from the start it's quite clear that Cage has been horrendously miscast, and his attempt to act his way out of trouble is painful to watch. The actor has been on a good run of form recently, giving understated and smart performances which display his strengths; but this brash turn, full of face-pulling and fluctuating speech patterns in which he'll turn one line into an croaky drawl while belting out the next at full volume, is a horrible performance which is all wrong for the picture.

But let's get back to the plot, shall we? While taking some time off to recuperate, Malus receives a letter from a old flame who is now living on the remote island of Summersisle, begging him to come to the island and find her ten year-old daughter who has disappeared without a trace. Intrigued, Cage decides to take the plunge, but from the minute he sets foot on Summersisle it's clear he would be well advised to hop right back on that seaplane and get the hell out of there. This is one strange place, and while the original Wicker Man presented us with a community that was just a little odd, and then slowly developed the sense that something dreadful was about to happen, Labute's version tries to give us the creeps right away. It fails.

Neil Labute always seemed like an odd choice to write and direct this version of The Wicker Man, but he tries to make his presence felt by focusing on the sexual politics of Summerisle, which he does with his usual lack of subtlety. The main product on the island is honey, hence the large amount of beehives dotted around the place, and the structure of the human population also somewhat resembles that of a beehive. Sister Summerisle (Ellen Burstyn) acts as queen bee, and the society she lords it over is a matriarchal one in which men are simply mute drones, used only for manual labour and breeding. Perhaps it was the desperate desire to be seen as a fresh take on the story which inspired Labute to go down this route, but it's a major misjudgement. The island's set-up is silly and never for a moment convincing, and it leads to some unpleasant scenes later on. I know these crazy ladies are trying to kill him, but I really don't need to see Nicolas Cage karate-kicking a 23 year-old woman in the face and knocking another woman out with a punch to the temple.

A remake of The Wicker Man seems like a particularly inappropriate outlet for Labute to display his usual tiresome misogyny., and despite the island's strong female presence Labute leaves his actresses adrift without a decent character or line between them. Burstyn is second-billed after Cage, but her role is little more than an extended cameo and she can't match the dignified presence or understated menace Christopher Lee brought to his Lord Summerisle in 1973. Burstyn is also hindered by the badly CGI-d bees which provide a distracting presence during her scenes, especially when they cause a bug-eyed Cage to repeatedly slap himself in a comical fashion. Elsewhere, a coolly effective Molly Parker is probably the pick of the bunch and her scene in the classroom is one of the film's highlights; but Frances Conroy, Leelee Sobieski and Kate Beahan make little impact.

It seems Labute and Cage have completely lost sight of what made the original film such a terrific experience. Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man blended together a number of unlikely elements - religion, sex, folk music, paganism - and gave it a Hammer horror edge to create something truly unique. Edward Woodward's Sergeant Howie was a repressed, pious and officious character who pushily made his investigations round the island, experiencing a deepening sense of outrage at their godless antics but failing to see where his own path was leading; and his resistance of Britt Ekland's temptation sealed his fate. The film is a surprisingly multi-layered examination of faith, and it's this subtext which really drives it and gives the climax its powerful charge. The sight of the deeply religious Howie screaming "Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!” when he first sees the Wicker Man is a more powerful moment than anything this remake can offer, and when Labute chooses to excise all of these elements in his new version, he's losing the film's raison d'ĂȘtre.

Instead, the film is utterly lacking in tension and atmosphere. Labute tries to generate a bit of drama with frequent shots of Cage jogging around the island like a man who's just missed his bus (or cycling, when it gets really exciting), and he awkwardly shoehorns a number of near-death experiences into the narrative, none of which seem particularly threatening or interesting. The story is clumsily put together, with far too many flashbacks bogging down the narrative, and Labute's constant recourse to cheap jumps and scenes in which Malus mistakenly thinks he spots the girl are insultingly rote. In fact much of The Wicker Man is so clumsy and misguided it provokes unintentional laughter. In the final half-hour Nicolas Cage resorts to running around the island with his arms flapping and eyes bulging while shouting every single line at the top of his voice; and if The Wicker Man does nothing else, then at least the sight of Cage stumbling through the woods dressed as a grizzly bear is guaranteed to brighten up your day.

But what about that ending, how can you possibly mess that up? Well, the central horror of what happens during The Wicker Man's climax is such that the recreation here can't fail to have some sort of impact, and these final moments are indeed the only scenes in the picture which seem alive, which seem to have something genuine at stake. But Labute still does his best to destroy the gift finale he has been handed. The sound of Cage being tortured off-screen is hilarious when it should be brutal; but after the Wicker Man had burnt to the ground and the screen had faded to black, I felt the sequence had still retained much of its potency. However, Labute isn't quite finished yet, and we're saddled with a "six months later” coda which is senseless, stilted, badly acted and feels like something tacked on at the last minute just to soften the blow a little. It saps whatever power the climactic scenes had managed to generate, and it's just the last in a long line of terrible decisions which turn this film into a joke.

The original version of The Wicker Man is a classic, and one can only hope this new release will cause those who haven't seen it to seek it out. As for Labute's film? It's a redundant and witless travesty which only deserves one fate - let it burn.