Haunted by a death he couldn't prevent, policeman Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) is having a bad time of it: Off the job, taking pills so he can sleep without dreams, shaking hands and shaken spirit. And then he receives a letter from his ex-fiancee Willow (Kate Beahan); they haven't spoken for years, since she went back to her childhood home on an agrarian commune on a small island in Puget Sound. Now, she's reaching out to Edward because her daughter Rowan (Erika-Shaye Gair) is missing. She needs him. And with the pull of memory and the necessity of finding Rowan propelling him, Edward makes way to Summersisle, the isolated island Willow calls home, to try and unravel the mystery of Rowan's disappearance. And it is not the only mystery he will find.
A remake of a lesser-known but well-loved 1973 British horror film, The Wicker Man returns to the big screen as a project of writer-director Neil LaBute. With a track record of short, sharp, shocking plays and indie dramas to his credit (In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things), LaBute doesn't seem like a typical choice to helm a horror remake; then again, The Wicker Man isn't your typical horror film. My memories of the original are thin at best -- I viewed it a long time ago, and all I recall is Edward 'The Equalizer' Woodward using his shouty voice, and some truly interminable musical numbers -- and, of course, the climax, which we won't discuss. The Wicker Man was first written for the screen by Anthony Shaffer -- like LaBute, a filmmaker who started in the theater. And The Wicker Man -- which wasn't even screened for critics until 10pm the day before it opened -- is actually a compelling and disquieting film, especially after Cage's Malus gets to the island to help his old love look for her daughter. Summersisle, it turns out, is private -- in more ways than one. It's owned by Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), a bright-eyed natural leader who's made a peaceful, agrarian community where people live simple lives and worship as they choose. At first, Edward's annoyed but accepting of the islander's ways -- Hey, that's why we have a First Amendment, right? -- but gradually we notice that the ways of Summersisle go far beyond the limits of reason ... even if Edward doesn't.
In a lot of ways, The Wicker Man is a nice deconstruction of private eye films: Edward has a case to work, and he'll follow it all the way down, if need be. What Cage's Edward doesn't seem to get is that he's not in his world anymore -- a world of laws, a world where saying you're a cop can get you cooperation -- and with every step he takes in pursuit of Rowan, the further he goes away from the world he knew. It also doesn't help that the residents of Summersisle have set their community up as a matriarchy -- men don't have much to say in how things go, and the women of the town (including Molly Parker, Leelee Sobieski and Diane Delano) don't have much use for some jumped-up interloper coming around asking a lot of questions about a missing girl.
One thing that keeps The Wicker Man from attaining maximum punch is a simple narrative fact: As we watch Cage seek out Rowan and the truth, we know we're watching a horror film, and that sets our expectations. He doesn't know he's in a horror film; he thinks he's working a missing persons case in a small town while re-connecting with his ex. And, by and large, LaBute doesn't shoot the movie like a horror film (even if he does have the best double-dip dream sequence moment since An American Werewolf in London): The camera's restrained, and offers slow, leisurely pans over disturbing, surreal visions more than it gives us jumps and jolts.
The Wicker Man actually does what The Da Vinci Code couldn't: It finds terror in the jut and thrust of the modern world against the old, of modern reason against primitive forces. The people of Summersisle have said, to quote the song, "Gimme that old-time religion", and a modern man like Edward -- a cop, dedicated to restoring order and punishing transgressions -- can't quite see how far the island has gone until it's too late. You could do an interesting political reading of The Wicker Man -- how the murderous matriarchs of Summersisle are as irrational and creepily committed as any religious fanatics: What's the difference between a murder to appease the harvest gods, a suicide bombing in the name of Allah, and shooting a doctor who performs abortions in the name of Jesus? How can rational civilizations best set themselves against irrational ones? Are they doomed to fail from the start? The first Wicker Man contrasted decent, Christian English values with pagan godlessness; this new film seems to be reaching for something deeper, something a little different. (With the remake's focus on a sort of wiccan pseudo-feminism, I'm pretty sure the traditional question of whether LaBute is a misogynist will be raised; the answer to that has always been that LaBute consistently comes to us as a misanthrope, not a misogynist; he isn't crazy about humans, regardless of gender.) . And Cage may be walking in the footsteps of the classic private eye in The Wicker Man, but it's his primal eye that he should be working with -- one of the pleasures in The Wicker Man is watching Cage not quite hear what the residents all around him are really saying as a world of ancient ways and pagan means slowly unfolds around him.
But, again, that's because he doesn't know he's in a horror film; we do. And even if you haven't seen the original, the denouement of The Wicker Man can be seen towering over the film long before it happens. The Wicker Man isn't perfect, but it is truly interesting -- deserving of deeper contemplation, and full of moments and pleasures for those willing to seek it out. The modern horror landscape seems to be mostly made up of endless sequels (Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer) and Japanese Horror film re-makes (The Grudge, Pulse) and, worst of all, Japanese horror remake franchises (the fact The Grudge 2 is being filmed is terrifying to me, but not in the way the producers would probably like). Weighed against those alternatives, even a wicker man can seem pretty substantial in comparison.