Wicker Man, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When attempting what is often deemed the most unnecessary of cinematic projects, the remake, a filmmaker can adopt a nearly identical plot but still generate an inferior product. Such is the case with Neil LaBute and The Wicker Man. LaBute isn't a hack director. He chooses his projects carefully and has an impressive resume that lists a group of smart, challenging pictures, but nowhere has he gone more wrong than in his misguided attempt to modernize Anthony Shaffer's 1973 screenplay. Despite retaining significant chunks of Shaffer's dialogue to go along with the basic story structure, LaBute has transformed the eerie, disturbing psychological thriller into an unintentional comedy. At times, The Wicker Man is hilariously bad. When this isn't the result of LaBute's ill-advised "enhancements" to the original tale, it's caused by absurd new lines or Nicolas Cage's bumbling attempts to step into Edward Woodward's shoes.

One of the most significant changes is evident early in the proceedings. In the 1973 movie, the central conflict was between Christianity and paganism. Religious convictions were the underlying motivator for all that transpired. In the 2006 version, that aspect has been diluted. The "pagans" have now become a group of matriarchal feminists who have isolated themselves from the mainstream. They stand in opposition not to Christianity but to modern, male-dominated society. There's no reason this couldn't have worked had it been handled better.

Edward Malus (Cage) is a California cop who is taking some time off following an on-the-job tragedy. At the request of an old girlfriend, Willow (Kate Beahan), he travels to the mysterious island of Summersisle to investigate the disappearance of Willow's daughter, Rowan. He finds himself in a closed society where men are valued only for their ability to perform physical labor and aid in procreation, and where a nature goddess is worshipped. The island is presided over by Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), a woman whose word is law. Edward discovers disturbing clues about what may have happened to the little girl. They involve an annual May Day festival that incorporates human sacrifice. Rowan may still be alive, but her time could be limited. It's April 30. Then Willow drops a bombshell: Rowan is Edward's daughter.

The good thing about The Wicker Man (to the extent that anything good can be mentioned) is that the shocking ending has been left intact. The bad thing is that almost every change occurring before that iconic moment is a misfire. The prologue is unnecessary and creates logistical problems when viewed in retrospect. Making Rowan Edward's daughter muddies the waters without adding significant emotional complexity. The most egregious error is a lengthy speech given by Sister Summersisle near the end that explains the plan in painstaking detail. The 1973 left a few things up to the audience's imagination; LaBute's approach not only insults the intelligence but heightens the sense of contrivance.

In the 1973 movie, Edward Woodward's performance as the visiting policeman was peerless. Nicolas Cage is a woeful replacement. His delivery is stiff and the character comes across as absurd. Given the right role, Cage can be effective, but this is a case of miscasting. Similar comments can be made about Ellen Burstyn, who has taken the part originally essayed by Christopher Lee. Lee's Summerisle was dark and menacing. Burstyn's gender-shifted interpretation is cartoonish. Another disappointment is that the change in focus and PG-13 rating disallow a recreation of one of the most striking sequences from the first movie: Britt Eckland's nude seduction dance.

The ominous atmosphere of the original has not been effectively re-created. Certainly, the Summersisle where Edward lands is strange, but its quirks are presented as more fatuous than dangerous. There's no sense of claustrophobia, no feeling of being trapped. And, despite the shortness of time, there's no urgency. Edward's investigation is uninteresting because all the details that made the 1973 version compelling (most of which had nothing to do with following the clues) have been stripped away.

Much as I might like to stand up for Neil LaBute, he has left himself in an indefensible position with The Wicker Man. Audiences who have not seen the 1973 version will be surprised by the ending, but unimpressed by what leads up to it. Those familiar with the earlier movie will be horrified by the wrong turns taken in re-shaping it for 2006 consumption. As is always the case with an inferior remake, give the new version a pass. Instead, rent the original. It's in color. You get atmosphere and tension, plus Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, and a delightfully naked Britt Eckland. Why bother with LaBute's miscalculation?

Wicker Man, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2006-09-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1