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THE WICKER MAN , US/GERMANY , 2006 , MPAA Rating : PG-13 for disturbing images and violence, language and thematic issues.

There's no point in trying to pretty this up. This remake of THE WICKER MAN, rewritten from Anthony Schaffer’s original screenplay by Neil LaBute and directed by him is a complete flop. With little more than the threat of an estrogen-fueled society to render audiences weak with fear, and none of the zeitgeist of an earlier collective unconscious to prey upon, there is little to work with and LaBute has made the very least of it that he could. This is perhaps the most horrifying part of the film, or at least the most puzzling. LaBute, with YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, and THE SHAPE OF THINGS, made his mark with by examining without sentiment or prevarication the sometimes vicious dynamics of the struggle between the sexes.


This version of WICKER MAN moves the action from Britain to Washington state. More precisely, to Summer’s Isle, a small private island of the coast where an eccentric band of entrepreneurs live a bucolic life, sell their wares, including honey, and guard their privacy with ferocious zeal. That privacy is violated when police officer Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage, who co-produced) bribes his way onto the island after a mysterious summons from Willow (Kate Beahan), an old flame who broke his heart by disappearing years ago. The summons arrived at an oddly auspicious moment, what with Edward on leave from his job after witnessing a horrific accident in which a mother and daughter were burned alive before his eyes when he was unable to rescue them. Or was it that they were unwilling? When the envelope arrives from Summer’s Isle, without postage, the request to help the love who left him find her missing daughter is irresistible as an act of atonement.


The island, tricked out like a Renaissance Pleasure fair without the Port-O-Potties, is peopled by self-reliant women with names of a uniformly botanical nature and with condescending smiles for Edward. That last is perfectly understandable as he struts about in an incongruous suit and tie, flashing his badge and asking questions the answers to which he doesn’t like any more than the fact that he can’t seem to cow any of these women. The men, what few of them there are, however, are in a permanently bovine state, and one that is silent for reasons that this version does not go into. His only help is Willow, who begs him to dig deeper and to not believe anything he’s told.


LaBute, who can make a screen crackle with emotional fury using just a few well-chosen lines of dialogue and actors at the top of their game, flails here. There is no energy to the pacing or the acting or the lines recited. The sense of dread that should pervade every frame of film is nowhere to be found. It plays like an expensively produced commercial for some organic product grown with loving care by devotees of all-natural farming and/or animal husbandry. Cage approaches everything on the island with the same vaguely ticked-off expression, be it sampling mead, the island’s hardest libation, or running in terror from a swarm of bees, to which he is violently allergic. Beahan, lovely as a summer’s day (you’ll pardon the expression), has no light at all behind those large and limpid eyes. Not even Molly Parker, one of the finest actresses working today and one who can transmute even a raised eyebrow a tantalizing mystery, can avoid falling flat while parading around at one point in an outré display of black feathers. Only Ellen Burstyn as the leader of Summer’s Isle acquits herself with aplomb, playing her part with the casual serenity and self-assurance that comes of supreme confidence. That she is put through some ridiculous paces as the film reaches its ritual climax is doubly regrettable as a result.


THE WICKER MAN is unsettling for many reasons, none of which have to do with the film itself. Ancient rituals, secret societies, sexual politics, angry bees, it seems like a slam dunk, but the only thing this will leave its audience pondering is what the filmmakers were thinking.

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