September 11, 2006

The Wicker Man

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Can you name a remake that is better than the original? The odds are against it. Recent remakes like The Omen, Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate, or When a Stranger Calls do not hold up to the original. The only remake that is generally considered superior is the Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon (and if anyone has actually seen the original 1931 version, I am very impressed). Wicker Man, the newest modern remake, is based on a 1973 cult classic that I have not seen. Looking at the plot through fresh eyes, the film entertains, but ultimately it comes up short.

The film stars Nicolas Cage as Edward Malus, a cop traumatized by a car accident involving a little girl. Edward receives a letter from his ex-girlfriend Willow (Kate Beahan) who claims her daughter is missing; incredibly, the daughter looks the same as the girl in the car. Edward travels to Summersisle, a private island of the Pacific Northwest where Willow lives. Edward finds a society dominated by women whose elders include Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn) and Dr. Moss (Frances Conroy). The members of the island deny the existence of Willow’s daughter and Edward starts to believe that something sinister is occurring.

Throughout the film, Cage is stuck in his “mildly crazy” mode, akin to his character in The Rock. He frequently responds to other characters by acting out incredulously. One particularly effective moment occurs after he wakes from a dream within a dream and proceeds to scream “damn it!” with a perfect blend of fervor and frustration. Also, Cage’s character is allergic to bees, and during one amusing scene, he repeatedly swats bees that land on his neck while in the middle of conversation.

The rest of the cast is less than stellar. Burstyn, who was excellent in Requiem for a Dream, FedExes in her performance, wasting a potentially juicy role. Beahan and Conroy are merely average and add nothing interesting to their performances. Also, Leelee Sobieski has a small supporting role with so few lines that I think she should seriously consider finding a new agent.

The script by renowned contemporary playwright Neil LaBute, who previously wrote and directed The Shape of Things and In the Company of Men, is full of plot problems. The car crash in the beginning is never sufficiently linked to the scenes on the island, and there are many strange occurrences that are never explained to the audience. Also, while the twist in LaBute’s The Shape of Things was interesting and unexpected, Wicker Man’s twists are very obvious and easy to predict. Furthermore, there are some interesting parallels in the script between the females on the island and a bee colony, but this is never appropriately fleshed out. The dialogue is relatively weak also. There are some moments of dialouge, such as a conversation about the meaning of the word “quixotic.” However, many conversations seem awkward and forced, uncharacteristic of LaBute’s work.

LaBute’s direction is also hit or miss. The cinematography is excellent, as LaBute really captures the beautiful scenery on the island with wide shots. Unfortunately, LaBute was not hired to make a travelogue for the Pacific Northwest. Certain dramatic scenes in the movie come off as comical, which is usually the director’s fault. For example, in one scene, Cage karate kicks a female character (maybe he is auditioning for Ultimate Fighter 4). In another, Cage sprints around the island in a bear suit. I was hoping that he was either really excited for the upcoming Chicago Bears season (and my fantasy team running back Thomas Jones) or was going to finally explain the infamous bear fellatio scene from The Shining. Instead, it just turned out to be bad directing.

Don’t get me wrong — the movie is not awful. It is an interesting look at human cruelty and cultural religious differences while being somewhat entertaining. Overall though, the movie never comes together. And if you only want to see the film to see Cage scream “WHO IS THE WICKER MAN?!” from the trailer, please beware: To my chagrin, this moment does not make the final cut of the film.