This review contains major spoilers, especially if you have not seen the original film.
I never believed that Neil LaBute was a misogynist. His venom seemed equally spread out across all genders – the evil assholes in his films were just as likely to be men as women. Even the film that earned him the M word label, In the Company of Men, was misunderstood – Aaron Eckhart was evil, and intent on destroying Matt Malloy as well as that deaf girl. But The Wicker Man contains such animosity towards women that its final act becomes a howl of rage at them finally expressed by Nicolas Cage when he screams, “You bitches! You bitches!” Neil, I love you and your films, but boy is that M word going to be hard to dodge this time.
The Wicker Man is a remake of an English film from the 70s. LaBute has drafted his own script and directed the story of a California motorcycle cop who gets a mysterious letter from his ex-fiancee; she claims her daughter is missing and he travels to the strange, female dominated island where she lives to investigate. The original Wicker Man isn’t one of “my” movies – I’ve seen it, but it was a long time ago, and I thought it was interesting but silly, and that the famous ending was really the best part of the whole thing. I didn’t walk into LaBute’s version with any expectations except the ones I bring into a LaBute movie: sharp dialogue, well drawn characters and biting observations about what bastards we all are. I didn’t get much of that, but I did get the original film’s silly – in spades.
LaBute’s The Wicker Man is much more than silly, though. It’s downright weird. It’s one thing that the inhabitants of Summersisle act bizarre, but LaBute has cast one of America’s weirdest leading men in the starring role. Nic Cage is strange from frame one of the film, and instead of the events on the island feeling like modern society meeting a pagan one or male society meeting a female society it feels like one mental institution having a softball game against another one. It’s like Cage is trying to out-odd these Ren Faire-esque women, and he sometimes succeeds.
Male and female relations are LaBute’s “thing,” his auterial signature, but in The Wicker Man everything is taken to an insane degree. We’re introduced to Nic Cage (playing Edward Malus, pronounced Male-us as opposed to Malice) when he’s looking through self help books and ordering a salad at a greasy spoon. Oh no, he’s so emasculated, what hope does he have against the women of Summersisle? None, of course, and that’s LaBute’s point – Cage’s cop co-worker is also at the diner and he’s wolfing down a meaty burger; when the letter from the ex comes, the cop buddy scoffs at it and essentially tells Cage to let her go fuck herself. Guess which guy doesn’t get burned alive at the end?
The women of Summersisle, meanwhile, are all evil, lying, manipulative cunts – every single one of them, right down to the schoolgirls (actually, every woman in the film, minus a diner waitress, is directly implicated at the end of the movie). Women don’t love, the film tells us – they trick men into sex for procreation, and eventual barbequing. The women raise bees, and they run their island like a hive, with the men as subservient and apparently mute drones (it’s a madhouse! A maaaaaadhouse!). Ellen Burstyn is absolutely phenomenal as the Queen Bee of this community, dripping evil and royal honey (oh, by the way, the women make honey but won’t let Malus have any. They serve storebought honey, and when they run out of that, they just give him “sweetener.” Holy psychosexual issues, LaButeman). It’s interesting – the film is positively foaming mad at women, but LaBute has lots of good actresses doing good work.
The bee stuff is interesting as well when you consider that LaBute is Mormon – beehives are a big thing with Mormons. I don’t exactly know why, and I’ll admit that I only caught this because I just finished reading Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, about Gary Gilmore’s execution in Mormon Utah, the Beehive State. The matriarchy of Summersisle is like a mirror image of the patriarchy of the Mormons, including weird religious beliefs and a certain amount of isolation. At one point someone compares these women with the Amish, and that works to an extent, especially because we think that Cage’s ex left the community to, as Burstyn says, “test herself and test us,” which is like the Amish custom of rumspringa, when adolescent Amish try the world of “the English” (aka, us). But we find out that the truth is that the ex was sent by the community to ensnare a man, much more like the Mormon compulsory missionary work. The film’s epilogue shows us that this work continues, as Leelee Sobieski (looking super fetching in Ren Faire wear, by the way) starts doing missionary position work with James Franco, looking as surprised to be in the last two minutes of the movie as I was to see him there. Wicker Man II: The Wicker Goblin!
The movie keeps getting weirder as it goes on, until at the end it gets laughably weird. It also gets laughable in general – Nic Cage starts slugging women, and it’s just hilarious. Cage is chased by a couple of CGI bees and it’s a hoot. Later, he is captured and I guess LaBute forgot to shoot a whole scene because a big argument between Cage and Burstyn is played out like a radio drama over some footage of people walking – and it gets really awesome when Cage’s legs are apparently broken. We hear the cracks (again, as a weird overdub on other action) and Cage cries: “My legs! My legs!” You half expect Leslie Nielsen to be waiting for Cage up in that big Wicker Man of the title.
The movie is a glorious disaster. It reminds me of Lady in the Water in many ways, although this is a much worse film. The Wicker Man is fascinating to watch because of the man who made it, and how much of himself seems to be imprinted on the film. The Wicker Man wasn’t screened for critics, so I had to see it at a movie theater today, with a crowd that despised the movie – hooting and hollering and walking out saying it was among the worst movies they’ve ever seen. These people probably don’t know LaBute’s work, because if they had they would have been fascinated just on that level. I wish he had made a better film here, and part of the problem seems to be that he’s outside of his wheelhouse – the thriller structure isn’t for him (and it isn’t helped that the movie keeps having these lame “scary” dream sequences that feel like they were shoehorned in by antsy financiers wondering how a movie where nothing happens for 95% of the running time could make any money), and he seems so set on making everything happen on a “metaphorical” level that he doesn’t infuse any of the characters with personalities or meaning as people. No one in The Wicker Man feels like a real person, and so nothing is ever at stake in the whole movie. It becomes an exercise, LaBute saying, ‘Can I bend this original film to my will?’ The answer is he can only bend it so far before it snaps back and smacks him in the face.