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Monday 4 September 2006

The Wicker Man

reviewed by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Neil LaBute

Written by Neil LaBute (based on a screenplay by Anthony Schaffer)

Starring Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Leelee Sobieski, Diane Delano, Michael Wiseman, Erika-Shaye Gair

Howard Waldrop: Poor bastard Joey Ramone: not only did he die, he had this albatross dedicated to his memory.

Both: There's two hours of our lives we'll never get back. What a great big mess of nothing at all. When you first see it, it doesn’t make sense, and the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.

HW: I have seen in my life:

  1. The original short slaughtered US release of The Wicker Man in the mid-1970s.
  2. The gently-slaughtered re-release of it in the late 1970s.
  3. The full-length un-slaughtered British original, at the old Varsity Theater on the Drag in Austin in the early 1980s.
Any of them are better than this.

Lawrence Person: The plot is pretty much the same as the original, up to a point: Policeman travels to private island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl (who might possibly be lined up as a sacrificial victim), only to find the islanders, who he finds out are part of some weird cult, jerking him around as to whether she even existed or not.

There are things they left out of the original, and things they've added or changed. The omissions, namely the sex and singing, make sense, because the original was not only released close to its own Sell-By date, but probably just a little past it. The nudity and hyper-sexuality of the Summerisle residents probably still had power in 1973, even though it was already six years after the "Summer of Love." But general culture has become so sexualized that the shock value is gone. Come across half a dozen couples screwing on the village green today and the first thing you wonder is if MTV is filming. And as for the singing, there are still points of interest in seeing Britt Ekland dance around naked (two of them, to be precise), but her pagan song of seduction is so sappy it comes across like a session where Peter, Paul & Mary were told to try it again, but without their usual hard-rocking beat. It had all the sinister foreboding of morris dancing.

So I understand why they left those things out. Unfortunately, everything they've replaced those elements with are weak or incoherent.

HW: Neil LaBute, director and screenwriter, hasn't added a goddamn thing to the original; and by the transposition of Lord to Lady Summerisle, has taken a lot away. (Nor do the bee imagery or the hive-mind inferences work.) In the original, instead of Nicolas Cage and Ellen Burstyn, you had Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, and they talked about serious stuff. Burstyn just shows up to go "wooga-wooga-wooga!", as Groucho had it in A Night at the Opera.

The original was about the clash of religions (Lee: "Ah, Christianity! The religion of the virgin impregnated by the ghost."), organized Christianity versus the pagan. (Ambrose Bierce: "Heathen: A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel." — The Devil's Dictionary).

LP: In the original, Woodward was driven by both faith and duty, coming to Summerisle bearing the legal authority of the Queen and the moral strength of a truly pious (and by today's standards priggish) Christian. Here Cage, ostensibly looking for his ex-girlfriend's daughter, is driven by the need to act like a total dumbass to put what little plot is left through its creaky machinations. You don't know what, if any, religious beliefs he holds. Then again, there's no explanation as to just how this wacky hymenopteran gynocracy works either. You get handwaving references to "the old ways," but none of the fertility rituals at the heart of the original. LaBute has managed to make neo-Paganism both incoherent and boring.

The setting move from a UK island to a US one weakens the plausibility further still. You don't think any government agencies have popped around the place in the last 20 years or so? If they had, they just might have noticed all the men seem to have had their tongues cut out...

HW: Things happen in this movie: Cage's character runs around a privately-owned island in Puget Sound, acting like a cop. (He is a cop, from California, acting like Washington State is within his jurisdiction, as the actress who played everyone's favorite Alaska Highway Patrolwomen in Northern Exposure reminds him...)

If you've seen the original, you'll be bored shitless. (This is one of those movies where all this stuff happens, mostly to no effect at all, and then people tell you what it’s all about in the last ten minutes of the movie.)

LP: A short list of the other things that don't work:

  • The opening highway scene with the little girl (who looks like the missing girl) and her mother getting hit by the truck after Cage pulls them over. The bodies are never found, and Cage is shown having hallucinations and taking (presumably anti-psychotic) medication to cope afterwards. There's no payoff, except:
  • Cage wanders around a couple of dangerous places afterwards, chasing phantoms, pointless exercises that only pad out the movie.
  • His bee allergy turns out to be pointless.
  • As do his missing motivational tapes. (What the hell was that about?)
  • The ruined church made sense in the original; it doesn't here.
  • Kate Beahan is quite lovely (I'm a sucker for that sort of fey Irish beauty), but she gives off the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend vibe so strongly that Cage's character comes across as a complete idiot for trusting her. He doesn’t bother asking her the most basic cop questions ("So, what’s the deal with this weird cult?"), and the answers she gives to the ones he does ask are evasive to the point of distraction.
  • "Hey, I'm going out to a private island owned by a strange cult out of my jurisdiction to look for a missing girl. Think I should bother to tell anyone in Washington State or the FBI? Nah…."
  • On the evidence presented here, Leelee Sobieski can't act.
  • Et Frigging Cetera.

HW: We have a new cliché in horror movies: the character has a nightmare you can't distinguish at first from reality. They wake up from the nightmare. They are in another nightmare situation. Then they wake up a second time.

It's happened to me three times in movies this year, and I've only seen four movies this year.

LP: But calling it a horror movie implies that it might remotely be scary. That just isn't the case. The Descent wasn't a good movie, but it sure as hell was better than this.

I suppose it's my duty as a critic to list what few virtues this film has. Molly Parker (playing a teacher) is very easy on the eyes. I smiled at the in-joke in the police station, with Woodward's character from the original movie shown in the background on a Missing poster. You have to give Burstyn credit: she's a lot better than the material deserves. And LaBute does do one thing right: The pace here is much snappier than the original, which is a true blessing, since the film finishes that much quicker.

HW: Since there's not much else to talk about: some thoughts occurred to me while watching this, mostly about locations:

A.) The opening scene of the movie supposedly takes place in California, where Cage is a CHiPs officer: the stretch of the road where the first ten minutes of the movie happens looks like a stretch of Colorado 149 between Wagonwheel Gap and Creede — where parts of National Lampoon's Vacation — the parts with the dog leash and car bumper — were filmed. It says in the credits "CA Unit" so I'm sure somewhere in CA looks just like somewhere in CO.

B.) If this movie was actually filmed on Puget Sound:

  1. They filmed it on the 12 days a year when it wasn't foggy or raining.
  2. The water is a lot choppier than I remember it except when a roaring cold front came through in the winter (this is May in the movie).

C.) I think they did film it there, somehow, as in a dialogue scene between Cage and Beahan with the Sound in the background, a salmon rolled.

It was almost the only good thing that happened in the movie between the spectacular car-wreck opening and the talking-it-to-death climax (and the stupid coda that shows us that this will go on in the future); it cheered me up. While they were wasting celluloid, the cycle of life still went on.

Cage's character is named Edward. His old girlfriend's name is Woodward. If you're going to pay homage like that, why not use all your money to re-release the 1975 British full-length original, instead of pouring it down this rathole. It's in color. You get some content and actual thinking, and you get Christopher Lee.

I promise you, Locus will eventually send us to a good movie this year, if there are any...

Poor bastard Joey Ramone.

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