What sounded like one of the year's most ill-fitting and head-scratching projects -- Neil LaBute and Nicolas Cage (of all combos) getting together to remake Robin Hardy's 1973 chiller The Wicker Man (a true cult classic if ever there was one) -- ends up being a half-compelling, half-goofy and half-redundant piece of remake revisionism. (Yes, that's three halves, but it's that weird a movie.) That's not to say you won't find a few really strong components in LaBute's (ultimately pointless) revisit ... but it'll take a straight face and a eagle's eye to find the good stuff. And even then, the only people who should bother with the remake are the ones who simply can't be hassled renting the original because it's old and British.
Cage stars as state cop Ed Malus, a hard-working and noble sort of everyman hero, whose story begins with a mysterious, deadly roadside explosion and the malaise that comes only when a cop loses two civilians ... and the bodies are never found. After stewing around in his misery juices for a few days, Ed receives a letter from an old lover: She needs him to make the trek out to a private and very isolated island off the coast of Washington because her daughter's gone missing and there's nobody on the island who can help.
After bribing a local pilot and mildly butting a few heads upon his arrival, Edward settles in with the meat of the mystery. But the off-kilter community of Summersisle, which is composed almost exclusively of unfriendly females, indentured males and billions of bees, does not take too kindly to Eddie's arrival. (It probably doesn't help that he has the word "male" as part of his last name.) Indeed, most of The Wicker Man consists of Cage flaccidly interrogating a series of very sneaky women before the mystery is laid bare with a finale that (thankfully) hasn't been monkeyed with too much. Basically a forest-based whodunnit with a crafty ending and a strong collection of actresses, LaBute's take on The Wicker Man places significant emphasis on the paganism of its Mother Nature-y female characters. The flick has numerous slow spots and obvious plot holes, but there's still enough in the plus column to prevent it from being a downright disaster. I still contend that the remake didn't need to be made, but then we'd be robbed of a few really colorful turns from the likes of Leelee Sobieski, Ellen Burstyn, Frances Conroy and the wonderfully lovely Molly Parker. (It's a little ironic that the actress with the largest role (Kate Beahan) is the one who leaves the least impression.) Cage might be the anchor of The Wicker Man (and he acquits himself pretty well, all things considered), but this movie belongs to the ladies -- and all the actresses seem to be having some good fun with all the deviousness and duplicity.
To his credit, LaBute presents Summersisle as a locale that's both pastorally beautiful and quietly creepy: Forests are crawling with mute men, willowy young women and dozens of untrustworthy eyes. Cage stands out like a neon sign that's been dropped into a fairy-tale forest, and LaBute seems to delight in portraying the culture shock that accompanies a 'normal' guy who's been trapped in the company of, well, women that seem a whole lot like witches.
One could also choose to jam a lot of socio-political subtext into the proceedings, with Cage as the American gun-waver who invades an alien culture and (almost) forces his enemies to adhere to his will. And those who love to delve into the arena of sexual politics and the place of "mother" nature in our society should find a few choice nuggets to chew upon ... but ultimately the flick's still six kinds of unnecessary.
Aside from the cast and LaBute's fresh infusion of freaky-type feminism (not to mention a warm batch of (frequently unintentional) comedy), there's very little in this new version that's different (let alone superior) to Hardy's original film. It doesn't seem like the filmmaker had a "fresh new approach" to the material as much as he had an "affection for the original" -- and simply wanted to remake The Wicker Man because he happens to like it. LaBute goes way off-base a couple of times, too: A physical brawl between Cage and Sobieski is that special kind of hilarious, while the thru-line to the big finale is laden with goofy make-up and silly animal costumes. To his credit, though, LaBute is able to make the ending sing. His version of The Wicker Man manages to telegraph its surprises more than the original did, but the last few minutes still manage to pack a pretty powerful punch. Hell, all things considered, remake-wise, I'm shocked they even left the ending intact.
But then they go and lessen the impact by adding an epilogue that feels like it was borrowed from the Friday the 13th series, for cryin' out loud.