The Wicker Man (Warner Bros., PG-13)

It is such a strange movie that it is hard to imagine how it got the green light and then, when completed, got released.

 

I interviewed Neil LaBute for the pages of PLAYBACK:stl back in 2003 when he was doing interviews for The Shape of Things, and the fact that he was working on a remake of The Wicker Man came up back then. It struck me as both monumentally odd and potentially really cool-LaBute seems a weird and untested choice to remake a scandalously unseen great of the horror/thriller canon, but I like both him and the original enough to have gotten excited about it over the years. Well, to be honest, at the time he mentioned that he was working on it, it was far from a done deal, so I never really expected it to actually happen. If it did, though, it could be cool.

Really, now that it is finished and I've seen it, my feelings haven't changed at all. The project could be cool. But is it? I don't know. It is such a strange movie that it is hard to imagine how it got the green light and then, when completed, got released. It feels more like a film that would not get made, and if it did, it would get quashed by WB's studio heads based on its weirdness, only to be leaked to the Internet or go straight to video years later, where it would surely gain a cult following. Releasing it proper to the theaters (and quite a lot of them, at that-no limited release here) will just allow people for whom it was never meant to see it to see it, and it can be trusted that all of these people will hate it.

The gist of the film is that Nicolas Cage's Officer Edward Malus gets a cryptic letter from ex-girlfriend Willow (Kate Beahan) that her daughter has gone missing on the weird, cultish island she lives on, and that no one seems to care, and that she needs him to come to said island and help her track down her kid. Malus agrees, goes to the island, and finds it and its residents just as strange and unhelpful as Willow said they were. The rest of the film involves Officer Ed trying to piece together the fate of Willow's daughter.

The main changes LaBute made from the original is that his version is much goofier (in such a way that will probably wholly upset fans of the original and turn off its potential mainstream audience, because it really brings down the level of the film's suspense) and that, in typical LaBute fashion, the film is sort of misogynistic (insomuch as it has Cage in a bear suit punching women in the face, among other things, which kind goes back to the goofiness issue). The island has been transferred from Scotland to Washington State, and the leader of the island is now female (it is Ellen Burstyn now, whereas the original saw the great Christopher Lee as the creepy leader). To some degree, he has kept intact the suspense and overall feeling of menace (the all-female isle often reminded me of the 2004 Lucile Hadzihalilovic film Innocence, which maintained the aforementioned level of all-female menace, and without all the tomfoolery), although this is seriously undermined by the strangely included silliness.

And, as you've probably guessed by now, it is the viewer's disposition toward this silliness that will make or break the film for him or her. I think the vast, vast majority of people who see it will absolutely hate it on account of this, as it is carried out in such a fashion that it is hard to tell whether we are meant to laugh at it or not (personally, I have enough faith in LaBute as a filmmaker to assume that it is, in fact, intentional). As for me, the film was thoroughly enjoyable, although not at all in the way I would have expected it to be. Whereas the original Wicker Man has achieved cult status based on the fact that it is truly one of the best horror/thriller hybrids of all time and that practically no one has seen it, the new Wicker Man could achieve cult status because of its exceptionally odd action sequences, over-the-top acting, and basically being one of those so-bad-they're-good films (albeit I think intentionally so, which arguably discredits its status as such). Regardless, I think at this point in the film's life, it you see it, you can pretty much fully expect to hate it. Give it some time and context, and maybe people will start liking it, but certainly not any time soon.

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