A number of pregnant mysteries arise with the new remake of Robin Hardy's 1973 cult-remembered genre work. Namely, what's in this kind of malarkey for gender-combat provocateur Neil LaBute, and why was such a high-profile film tossed into theaters last Friday without letting critics see it first? The two simple answers are intertwined: While remaining faithful to some of fellow playwright Anthony Shaffer's original screenplay, LaBute has Americanized the scenario, and in doing so has poisoned its well with an old, familiar misogyny. At the same time, LaBute is no thriller-maker, and the new Wicker Man, which wasn't a horror film the first time around, makes sorry feints at effective creepiness and is paced in scrupulous accordance with Nicolas Cage's disoriented cop-hero, who roams around furrow-browed and uncomprehending of the fairly obvious situation around him.
The original film is partially famous because it is a cultural martyr: The director's cut was mangled by the distributor, and footage was permanently discarded. More than that, it was dumped into theaters and quickly withdrawn, lending the already unclassifiable bizarrerie the air of a secret rite. Having a Catholic policeman infiltrate a secluded Scottish island community that has reverted to sacrificial paganism makes for a tantalizing mix of ideas, and Hardy's movie is more than a little muddy in terms of subtext that's barely sub. Playing with pantheism in a modern context, the story ends up either endorsing Christianity's less horrific ways and means or simply raining bullets upon the basic idea of religion altogether. Which is a barn of a target, even if Shaffer's story concentrates on the surface conflicts and has nothing to say about the primal insecurities and prejudices that fuel religious construction. Much of the discussion, potent or thin, gets mired, in any case, by the latent '60s-flower-child campiness and a slew of honey-dripping soundtrack folk songs about harvest time and agrarian rituals that by themselves could spur you to join Opus Dei.
LaBute's redo is as overwritten as you'd expect, with plenty of the-past-was-no-accident ploys and character traits (a bee allergy, for instance) that -- surprise! -- emerge as plot functions. But what's more curious is the utter sexlessness of The Wicker Man -- Schaffer's conservative, anti-alternative-philosophy point of view has been discarded, as has the nude dancing, the orgies, the hedonistic élan, the sense of sex witchery, all of which made a nice case (in Hardy's film and otherwise) for earth worship over Christian repression. Now Cage's mainland officer, haunted by a highway wreck and in search of a missing girl, has only the Puget Sound colony's irrationally antiquated ways to infuriate him. He's never been to Pennsylvania Dutch country, apparently. LaBute has reinvented the pagans as a mother-goddess-worshiping matriarchy whose main product is honey and whose men are all mysteriously mute and subservient.
You can see LaBute coming at you a mile away, his brand of savage-sympathetic woman-hating finally unleashed. The silly joy spilling out of Britt Ekland's nude, crooning barmaid in the first version is replaced with icy superiority all around. The film boils down to Cage's hangdog investigator, brought to the island by a pleading letter from his ex-girlfriend (Kate Beahan), barking at implacable and gorgeously forbidding women and, eventually, punching the shit out of several, as the story's timer ticks down to a fertility ritual in which, he has reason to believe, the blond tyke will be sacrificed to the gods. Hardy's film is rife with phalluses; LaBute's is stuffed with menacing womb symbols. Someone should talk to LaBute's mother.
Not that Cage's clueless protagonist doesn't share a rising, helpless masculine rage with the louts from In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, but his fate is somewhat worse, a sacrifice made in the name of beleaguered manhood and for the sake of the womanly prerogative to withhold pussy. It's not hard to prefer the Christian-orthodoxy-versus-heathen-freedom head butt of Shaffer's conception, but perhaps that was too tangled a web for LaBute, being a recently "dis-fellowshipped" Mormon. If only LaBute's ball-covering notions came in a slick, thorny package; as it is, the search for the girl proceeds at a methodical crawl, and the protagonist's irate, walking-in-circles bafflement becomes ours as well, leavened only by Cage's occasional moments of reactive sarcasm. (The cast of willowy, back-to-nature hotties -- Leelee Sobieski, Molly Parker, the sad-eyed Beahan, who looks almost faerie enough to be a Lord of the Rings digital extra -- don't hurt, even if they are allowed only to act in haughty snippets.) LaBute could have remade Willard with female rats, for all the new film matters, indulging as it does the filmmaker's bitter distrust of women and little else. One wonders what hard-nosed romantic Johnny Ramone, the original movie's big fan and recipient of a dedication on the remake, would have thought.
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