Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man is a stupid, stupid movie. When an auteur as widely admired as LaBute makes a movie as clumsy and hackneyed as this, a critic may be persuaded to call it a genre deconstruction or a parody — it’s the critic’s Get out of Jail Free card for a director who has badly misstepped — but I’m going to go out on a limb and call the film what it is: genuinely idiotic. And it’s not just that it’s a terrible movie — that would be a big improvement. If a horror movie isn’t going to be great, the next best thing is for it to be terrible; at least then it can be cheesy fun. No, LaBute’s Wicker Man goes beyond mere badness into clumsy abuse of the most exhausted genre gimmicks (it’s got hideous twins speaking in unison, a dilapidated old barn where rotten boards suddenly collapse beneath our hero’s feet — at one point, he even wakes from a nightmare to find himself in — another nightmare!) and a creepy misogyny that should keep film-studies majors busy theorizing for decades.
Since his debut in 1997 with In the Company of Men, LaBute’s films have often centered around conflicts between men and women, reaching a nadir with 2003’s The Shape of Things, in which Rachel Weisz gives pudgy Paul Rudd an extreme makeover as a (spoiler!) heartless psychological experiment. LaBute got a pass from critics for the misogyny of Company, as most saw him as divorcing himself from the characters’ attitudes, revealing their sickening cruelty without becoming party to it. Maintaining that belief became more difficult after seeing Weisz’s sociopathic manipulatrix in Shape, and audiences might have assumed that by then LaBute had taken the whole woman-as-controlling-bitch thing as far as he could go. But they hadn’t counted on him taking on a horror movie.
That’s if The Wicker Man can properly be called a horror movie. No one’s quite sure what to make of the 1973 original, as it cheerily defies any generic categorization. There are a few frightening elements, to be sure, but there’s also a symbolic battle between Christianity and paganism, enough wacked-out musical numbers to make it feel like the sequel to Hair, and sufficient naked gamboling to qualify it as a very peculiar skin flick. (It’s notable for being the rare horror movie that features far more sex than violence — though, as seen through the eyes of the uptight, virginal protagonist, Sergeant Howie [a pre-“Equalizer” Edward Woodward], the free love on display might as well be a felony. Had he not been [spoiler!] burned alive in the last reel, Howie might have gone on to a fulfilling career on the MPAA’s ratings board.) All we know for certain is that it is a very 1970s blend of post-hippie spirituality and sexuality that contemporary audiences either applaud as a warped masterpiece, mock as high camp, or simply don’t get at all. What it has going for it is its idiosyncratic originality and unpredictability — qualities that LaBute casts aside in favor of the most exhausted banalities of the genre.
The plot of the remake develops along the same basic lines as that of the original, but what a change 30-odd years and a new, monomaniacal writer/director can make. Nicolas Cage — who’s aging into a meatier version of Ric Ocasek, only with overstarched hair desperately trying to hide his male-pattern baldness and such heavy makeup he must have hired Amanda Lepore’s cosmetologist — assays the lead role, Edward Malus (the first name is an homage to Woodward; the surname is the Latin word for evil — which makes no sense, as the character is an innocent drawn to preventing the evil acts of others*). When we first meet him, Ed is a California motorcycle cop who witnesses — and fails to prevent — the sudden deaths of an attractive young mother and her pigtailed daughter when their Pontiac Flammo station wagon instantly ignites after being hit by a runaway 18-wheeler. Haunted by their deaths, Ed’s further thrown into emotional turmoil when he gets a letter from an old girlfriend named Willow Woodward (Homage Part Deux — oh, and she’s played by Kate Beahan, who looks like Fiona Apple after massive collagen injections, if anyone cares). Her daughter, whose age is curiously the same as the number of years since Ed last saw Willow, has gone missing, and Willow can turn to no one else for help. Strangely, there’s no mention of the father. Yes, that’s right, we can see exactly where this is headed a mile off (the fifth line in my eight pages of screening notes is [spoiler!] “he’s obviously supposed to be the father”), yet Ed doesn’t catch on until 45 minutes into the movie, when Willow spells it out in bold and all-caps, with diagrams of conception from an old sex-ed book and a sonogram of a fetus with a pointy nose, hound-dog eyes, and one wicked widow’s peak. Yes, Ed is a grade-A ignoramus.
It’s not just that Ed’s stupid, though, it’s that LaBute seems to assume that his audience is as well. I’m really friggin’ tired of the movie cliche of the haunted-cop-who-must-redeem-himself-for-the-death-he-failed-to-prevent, but at least said cop usually doesn’t also have to save his own child to balance the scales. This sort of double-motivation is a lily-gilding that is entirely unnecessary psychologically — what person wouldn’t save an innocent little girl from a horrible fate, given the opportunity? do we really need a lot of rationalization? — but also wastes screen time and makes the viewer feel as though he’s being treated like a five-year-old.
Annnnyway … unable to resist a damsel in distress, Ed chivalrously flies off to Willow’s home on Summersisle, a small island in Puget Sound, and begins flashing around his out-of-state police badge and conducting one seriously lameass investigation. The island and all its businesses and agriculture are run by women — all of whom wear horrible Laura Ashley dresses and speak like Amish who studied diction (and acting) by correspondence course — and the men — what few we see — are all curiously mute. Being an ignoramus, Ed doesn’t notice. Instead, he conducts his investigation, seeking to intimidate the locals with his (jurisdictionally useless) badge and getting frustrated with their vague responses and obvious mind games. This goes on for a while, as LaBute restages various scenes from the original, neglecting to include all the fun stuff, like the crazy-naked-horny dance that Britt Ekland (the original Willow) and her bootylicious body double did in the upstairs room at the pub. Instead of sexy fun (which LaBute — a Mormon convert who eventually left the LDS church but maintained its prudish sexual morality — is constitutionally incapable of providing anyway) we get a lot of cheap jump-scare effects; tiresome, portentous New-Agey speechifying; and Ellen Burstyn pooting around as Lady Summersisle herself, the queen bee of the island, the Sarah McLachlan of this never-ending Lilith Fair — if you will — who occasionally wears crazy Braveheart face paint, but only when it’s situationally appropriate, mind you.
In its sexual politics, LaBute’s Wicker Man is less like the original film than one of those ridiculous 1950s sci-fi movies about astronauts landing on a planet ruled by women. But the women here, given a position of power, are far more oppressive than the menfolk ever were, cutting out the men’s tongues and subjugating them into the most dehumanizing servitude. In LaBute’s conception, man (of whom Nic Cage is his questionable emblem) is the bringer of rational order, challenging a gynocentric world of crunchy-granola Earth-Mother worship. LaBute’s so scared of the “sacred feminine” that he could be the villain in a Dan Brown novel. His dismal view of women turns conventional film morality on its head — in traditional action movies, particularly westerns, the hero was the man who would never hit a woman. In this movie, Ed becomes heroic when he does hit women. When he pulls a gun on an unarmed woman so as to steal her bicycle, the audience cheers, but when he punches a dykey bitch in the face, they really go hog-wild.
If this movie were about Jews forcing Gentiles to slave away in their bank vaults while they took over the world, no studio in Hollywood would have touched it. If it were about African-Americans who shanghaied white folks into working in their watermelon patches, the NAACP would be up in arms. If it were about gay men recruiting straights to wash the jizz off their bathhouse walls, Carson Kressley’s stormtroopers would force the film’s producers to wear plaid with paisley. So why did an international consortium of production companies (at least seven are featured in the opening titles) scrabble together $40 million for LaBute’s misogynistic vision? Why is it still OK in Hollywood to treat women as the malevolent Other when pretty much every other special-interest group has found a way to prevent being so thoroughly demonized? LaBute’s film certainly offers no insights into relations between men and women, and it’s only scary if you were frightened by a vagina as a child. LaBute has made a loathsome and vile little potboiler, but the thing is, regardless of how offensive the film’s subtext may be, it’s hard to imagine even the most ardent feminist really getting worked up over it. It’s a horror movie without a single real scare, a thriller absent any genuine thrills; the only way in which it might be successful is as a sedative (the friend I dragged to the screening slept through half of it), so who really cares — or will stay awake long enough to notice — if it’s hateful?
Correction: This review originally misstated the definition of “malus.”
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | September 2, 2006 | Comments ()