Directed by: Neil LaBute
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Kate Beahan, Ellen Burstyn, Frances Conroy
Rated: PG-13 for disturbing images and violence, language and thematic issues.
Parental Notes: This is a pretty hard PG-13, but still too soft for an R. The film is suspenseful and has disturbing imagery including a decomposed corpse and a person burning to death. Human sacrifice is a central theme. Probably not suitable for tweens or younger.
The 1973 film “The Wicker Man” was a cult hit starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee. How effective Neil LaBute’s remake is will depend heavily on your own movie preferences; like many grade B horror/thriller films, it has a number of flaws, and there’s a fine line between the frightening and the comedic.
The basic story remains the same: a police officer is brought to a remote island by a desperate letter from a woman who says her daughter is missing. Upon arriving, he finds the islanders are unhelpful and odd, and follow a religion with harvest and fertility festivals. As he digs deeper and deeper into the little girl’s disappearance, he becomes convinced she is going to be sacrificed at the upcoming fertility festival, and is determined to save her at any cost.
In the new version, Nicholas Cage plays officer Edward Malus, whose first name is a nod to the star of the previous version (the missing girl’s last name is Woodward, completing the reference). The woman who calls him to the island, Willow (Kate Beahan, “Flightplan”), was once engaged to him. When she ended their relationship she ran home to Summersisle where she grew up. Now, though, she tells Edward not to trust anyone on the island as he looks for her daughter, Rowan.
Edward is hampered by hallucinations and nightmares brought on by an encounter on a deserted road. Some time ago, he stopped a single mom and her daughter, only to watch helplessly as their car was demolished by a speeding semi truck. As he searches for Rowan, his unsettled emotions over that trauma blend with his emotions around Willow and the missing child and his investigation becomes clouded. Cage is a solid actor for this sort of role, playing an increasingly confused and angry man.
Like many not-good-but-not-bad-either films, “The Wicker Man” requires its audience to bring a bit of effort to the table. The time line is muddied — what day the fertility festival is and what day it currently is in the film isn’t clear in many scenes. There are a great many things which are never explained, starting with a wriggling, dripping mass in a burlap sack. For some this may aid the overall eeriness of the film, but others may find it laughable. As there are revelations toward the end, things ought to fall into place but instead they become more confusing. The overall truth of the matter is clear, but there are many details which don’t work.
There are two elements missing from this remake that were present in the original in spades: sex and religion. The officer in the 1973 film was a devout Christian, and it’s easy to read the film as a clash between a fanatical Christian and a group of fanatical pagans. Edward Malus, however, shows very little religious feeling in the new film. The old version had plenty of sexiness, as well — ritual nudity, a frenzied seduction dance, and so on. Here, the sexiest thing that happens is some rather chaste kissing. While differences are to be expected between an original and its remake, the remake has lost some of the edge of the original.
Like many who saw the 1973 version, I spent most of the film wondering if the ending of the original would remain intact in the remake. I needn’t have worried. Director Neil LaBute wrote and directed “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors,” and isn’t one to shy away from the violence humans are capable of doing to each other. Even so, it’s difficult to predict who will and will not like this problematic film, be they fans of the original or not.