The Wicker Man
directed by Neil LaBute
(Warner Bros., 2006)

The little girl with dead eyes who appears on the cover of The Wicker Man DVD never appears in the film as anything other than a little girl with perfectly normal eyes and a smile. That should tell you how hard filmmakers were trying to convince potential video renters that this movie is scarier than it actually is.

The Wicker Man of 2006 is, of course, a remake of The Wicker Man of 1973. And it proves, once again, that the word "remake" should be forcibly excised from the Hollywood lexicon.

Unfortunately, director Neil LaBute got his hands on this project and emasculated a classic. Sure, the original film is dated in some ways, but it still fascinates as the story unfolds, grips your imagination with the intensity of Lord Summerisle's beliefs and the unwavering professionalism in Sgt. Howie's investigation. (Those two characters were played with stunning conviction by Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward.)

Now we get Ellen Burstyn and Nicholas Cage in those two leading roles, and neither has the screen presence to carry it off. Cage, as police officer Edward Malus investigating a missing child, is bumbling and inefficient, acting without authority, and plagued with self-doubt and inexplicable hallucinations. Burstyn, as the spiritual leader of the remote island community (now removed from the coast of England to the Puget Sound) is treacly instead of imposing. The simple pagan faith of Summerisle in 1973 has been replaced with a hard-to-swallow matriarchy on Summersisle in 2006 (they added an "s" in the middle to help differentiate between them), with the beautiful simplicity of the original island's customs stripped away entirely. The islanders themselves have changed into sexist and mean-spirited drones who take pleasure in the pain of others.

The religious dichotomy between Summerisle and Howie was epic and dramatically staged; the gender war between Summersisle and Malus pales in comparison. The circumstances that bring Howie to the final scene form an intricate web of plotting; the circumstances that bring Malus there are basic and unimaginative.

Although Cage is something of a poor man's action hero in Hollywood, any potential there is wasted when his best action scenes involve 1) almost falling through a barn floor, 2) dreaming he goes for a swim to rescue a drowned child and 3) beating up Leelee Sobieski. OK, so that last one was kind of cool.

This movie is devoid of everything that made the original outstanding. In its place, LaBute has injected nothing of note.

by Tom Knapp
27 January 2007

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