Written by: Neil LaBute (screenplay), Anthony Shaffer
Directed by: Neil LaBute
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Leelee Sobieski
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Is this hers? How'd it get burned? How'd it get burned? HOW'D IT GET BURNED, HOW'D IT GET BURNED?"
By their very nature, it’s difficult to predict the rise of a cult classic, particularly those that are dismissed by just about everyone only to be reevaluated years later. It’s one thing to earmark something like The Thing—a film that bombed at the box office but had fervent supporters when it was released—but it’s another thing altogether to guess that an utter dud will one day be recovered as a cult object, if only ironically. This might be the case of The Wicker Man, a 2006 redux that was more or less dismissed upon arrival, especially by yours truly, who couldn’t believe the film missed the mark so goddamn wildly. I don’t think I ever seriously thought about it at all until the release of The Wicker Tree, a film that missed the mark even more wildly, so much so that I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe I hadn’t been a little too hard on the remake.
But even then, I never even bothered to actually give it another shot—my memories of it were that toxic, and it still was left in the recesses of my brain, written off in perpetuity. It may have stayed there if not for the New Beverly Cinema’s decision to program it as the second half of a “Cageploitation” double feature (along with the incredible Valley Girl). Since I only had one week in town, I must confess I initially felt a twinge of regret—why couldn’t it have been something like Vampire’s Kiss instead? (It didn’t help that the show’s trailer reel actually included that along the likes of Raising Arizona and Face/Off.) Who am I to question Quentin Tarantino, though? It turns out that this was one of the month’s double features that was personally programmed by the maestro, whose tastes can be somewhat eccentric. Hearing this gave me pause, leaving me to consider if I hadn’t unfairly dismissed The Wicker Man all those years ago.
I don’t know if it was just a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes working on me or if it was just the crowd’s infectious energy, but I slowly “got it” to a certain extent. Showing a revered classic is easy enough; showing a lesser-appreciated effort is the true mantra of the New Bev (if not repertory cinema in general). Besides, if you were to pluck out a true “Cageploitation” movie, you’d look to something like The Wicker Man, an effort that is mostly pedestrian with the exception of its lead actor’s oddball performance and its unhinged climax. Other Cage classics at least have something else going for it; here, he’s given the Herculean task of elevating one of the more misguided remakes in recent memory.
From the outset, it’s obvious that Neil LaBute’s Wicker Man is a much different beast from Robin Hardy’s. Gone is the eerie, subtle, creeping dread, here replaced by an opening scene with a goddamn car exploding in Cage’s face. Cage is Edward Malus, a policeman who can’t shake the image of a young girl and her mother going up in flames as he looked on, powerless to save them. He’s spurred back into action, however, when his ex-fiancée Willow (Kate Beahan) calls with troubling news: her daughter has disappeared in her hometown of Summerisle, a remote island off the coast of Washington. What’s more, the island is home to a bizarre neo-Pagan cult, a discovery that immediately puts Malus on edge. Like his counterpart in the original film, he’s bewildered by this bizarre community and its strange customs—especially when it looks like Willow’s little girl may have been made the victim of a ritual sacrifice.
Look, I’m not going to make the claim that seeing The Wicker Man projected in the New Bev made for some magical, revelatory experience. It is still quite a bad movie, one that’s often laughable for all the wrong reasons. Many of its performances (and not just Cage’s) seem to have been beamed in from another plane of existence, with simple reaction shots sometimes proving to be bewildering. Nearly every exchange between cast members is stilted and awkward, lending a (possibly purposeful) off-kilter vibe to the whole thing: in a movie where you aren’t supposed to trust anything, it helps that you can’t even believe these are supposed to be actual human beings interacting.
Cage himself is obviously at the epicenter of this madness, though I have to wonder if his growing, irony-soaked legend in recent years hasn’t retroactively made stuff like The Wicker Man seem more funny just because, hey, it’s Nic Cage trying to open a door or some other mundane task that sent this audience into fits of laughter. Regardless of where you come down on that, there’s no denying Cage is still some kind of presence: no matter what movie he’s in, he’s automatically the most interesting thing, if only because his acting style draws attention to everything he does, whether it’s simply squinting his eyes in constant bewilderment or indulging the scenery-chewing outbursts that have made him such a cult favorite.
Of course, it’s the latter that sends The Wicker Man into the ranks of infamy. In his effort to remake The Wicker Man in his own distinct image, Neil Labute takes right off the rails, and I still can’t decide if it’s a dismaying or impressive turn of events. One thing’s for sure: by the end of the film, there can be little doubt that this take should be taken seriously at all—I suppose I can understand why such a treatment of a revered classic would rub people the wrong way, but I tend to appreciate anything that proves to be as goddamn wackily memorable as this. Where just about everything else about the film had evaporated from my brain , the last fifteen minutes or so—in all its roundhouse-kicking, bear-suit-wearing, bee-freak-out glory—remained indelibly seared onto my psyche. You just don’t forget something as absurd as all of this, least of all when it ends on a “twist” involving James Franco and a dedication to Johnny Ramone. Every minute of this film’s climax feels as if it were constructed to be more baffling than the last.
It’s for that reason that I can no longer dismiss The Wicker Man out of hand, especially when the following years yielded some terribly forgettable remakes. If nothing else, it dares to be its own thing, something many reboots fail utterly to do. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man it ain’t, and it’s all the better for it. Not only does it boast a singularly compelling performance from Cage, but it also takes different angles and diversions to separate it from its predecessor, such as reimagining Summerisle as a matriarchal society. It also moves like hell—despite actually being longer than the original, this one breezes by like a trashy paperback, as each new discovery and bizarre tic makes the film compulsively watchable. Also, any film that boasts Ellen Burstyn as a shifty, probably sinister ringleader looking to burn the patriarchy to the ground cannot be ignored.
Again, I don’t want to give the impression that this screening miraculously unlocked the secrets to some woefully underappreciated cult gem. That might be going a bit too far. However, is that too much to expect? Does everything need to fall on such extreme ends of a spectrum between “unloved classic” and “deserving of all of the scorn?” The Wicker Man is a good example of a movie that falls somewhere in between: at 22-years-old, I was probably way too eager to dismiss any remake, much less one that’s a hot mess like this one.
But at 32 years old, I have come to appreciate these sort of hot messes, so much so that I’m about to type a sentence I never imagined writing: I willingly paid to see The Wicker Man remake in a theater, and I’m glad I did so. If you are able to do so, please patronize your local repertory houses, for they are truly doing the lord’s work. And who knows: maybe you’ll stumble upon something you’ve unfairly dismissed, only to find there’s something redeemable buried within—even if it’s just Nic Cage hijacking a bicycle at gunpoint.
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