Saturday, June 12, 2010

Can This Movie Be Saved? THE WICKER MAN (2006)

Though I seriously doubt this erratically-published vanity publication will ever reach the availability to salons and hospitals that the Ladies' Home Journal posesses, I am taking a cue from that venerated member of the Seven Sisters, and launching an ongoing series: Can This Movie Be Saved?. A look at well-documented instances of kino adstoj and determining if they were doomed from the pitch meeting, or if the road not taken could indeed have yielded a good movie. Like any great tragedy, often times the truth is that were it not for a fatal wrong turn, one would have a successful work of art instead of a gleaming turd.

We begin with one of the most egregious (and subsequently mercilessly lampooned) instances of widescreen epic fail, Neil LaBute's remake of Robin Hardy's THE WICKER MAN. You can believe everything you've heard about this movie. It's bad. More specifically, considering the talents of LaBute and Nicolas Cage (both of whom I happen to like though I know it's fashionable not to) and the possibilities of the subject matter, it's a big disappointment. The original THE WICKER MAN is still one of the most unsettling movies I've ever seen, and one that should be on the queue of every person who enjoys challenging film. Despite the fact that, strangely, now that the remake is so part of our snark culture, the central surprises of the original are likely all too obvious, it is still a showcase of great performances by Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, and Britt Ekland, and Anthony Shaffer's screenplay offers much to study in staging, plot turns, and building dread.

While no doubt the notion of remaking the film was borne from an ongoing onslaught of remakes that nobody but penny-pinching studio development people asked for, in this case, it wasn't such a bad idea, because LaBute's previous work, loved or loathed, were original and punchy and with a point of view. It's the difference between a genuine visionary rethinking an established work than, say, the hacky remakes of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS or THE FOG. Note that this was released in the same year as THE DEPARTED, Martin Scorsese's just-as-personalized remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's INFERNAL AFFAIRS, and for whatever problems some may have with Scorsese's film, most agree it is a remake with something new to offer the familiar material.

And here there be spoilers for both WICKER MAN films...

I was initially intrigued with LaBute's central idea, replacing the primary conflict of Christianity vs. Paganism from the original film with a more sex-based impasse -- man-made law (in Cage's cop) vs. "natural" law (in the rural Summersisle residents). And I also liked the increased presence of main female character Willow, who in the previous film is essentially just a lust object, giving her a private conflict: bond of spouse (Willow as fiancee) vs. bond of family (Willow as matriarchal daughter). There are a few moments in this film when, in the course of the grand deception, and especially at the fiery end, you can see tinges of regret in Willow's face, acknowledging that at one time she felt something for her intended victim. And as silly as they look, the recurring uses of bees, honeycomb patterns, bears, etc, at least shows some creativity on the part of LaBute. Clearly he had been thinking about presenting a unique visual environment to stage his story.

However, the first huge problem, which has affected numerous remakes, is that he covers the surface of the original material without capturing the details that made them work the first time. For example, Michael Caine's protagonist in the original GET CARTER inspires curiosity because while he is presented as a mob muscleman, he has the appearance of a dandy and physically threatens no one until almost 40 minutes into the film, so there is initial suspense to whether he can really hold his own in the grimy situations into which he inserts himself. Whereas in the 2000 remake, Sylvester Stallone is obviously a physical threat, and his first appearance on screen involves him beating up somebody, so there's no suspense in waiting to see if he can indeed be a match for his enemies.

Thus in the original film, the Summersisle townsfolk are very friendly, albeit condescending, to Sergeant Howie, the better to fuel his self-righteousness, and to feed him a steady diet of red herrings to guide him to his destiny. And all the while, the casual talk of fertility rites, of radical sex ed in the classroom, and the hot blonde barmaid keep him on edge. The unease was not that they were a threat, but that they were...just weird people he wanted to escape but couldn't. In the remake, there is a chilly obvious nature to all the female inhabitants, and a painfully labored extended metaphor of making all the male inhabitants mute, which may be in keeping with LaBute's vaginal dentata, but results in taking all the suspense away. Howie's tormentors would seem like fun people to hang with...provided they didn't have you marked for sacrifice, but Malus' stream of harpies are exactly the kind of granola-munchers that one dreads crossing paths with at Whole Foods. It's scarier to be scared when you have nothing to be scared of, or as Henry Hill reminds us in GOODFELLAS, when they come to whack you, they come as your friends.

And from my usage of an old colloquialism in that paragraph, yes, as documented heavily by better writers, this movie is absurdly and almost unbearably [pun intended] misogynistic, a expanded demonstration of every exasperated man's lament that ultimately, a woman will choose the irrational myths of her mothers than the realities of her lover. LaBute's films are notorious for, to put it gently, depicting women who do not act in the best interests of anyone, including themselves. However, the bombastic and stubborn manner in which Nicolas Cage as Sergeant Malus conducts himself on the island would lead me to think that, just like the films that put LaBute on the map, this film is more plain misanthropic: women may be conniving bitches, but men can't stop being impetuous cowboys. In LaBute's classics like IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, it is obvious that the men are not to be identified with, liked or copied, and when they make bad choices we can laugh at them. But Sgt. Malus, just like Sgt. Howie in the original, is our surrogate - we have to identify with him because he is the "normal" in the strange land, and while both men have hang-ups and prejudices that we may not like, they're on an ostensible noble cause we should want them to see to completion.

And that is the second huge problem: the filmmakers' flawed choice as to what motivates Malus. First, he is distraught over being unable to save a parent and child from a crash (an event staged by the two "victims", plus his female cop partner), thus the plan to sucker him to Summersisle to save another child and redeem himself, a plausible enough ruse. But if the plot then dictates that Willow, the planted fiancee, reveals that Rowan is his own daughter, this should have been his motivation instead. As a blustery cop jacking bicycles (!) and kick-punching women (!!!), he comes across as a bully, almost deserving of his fate; if he wasn't so caught up in machismo, he could have saved himself. As a whole, I am tired of the horror/thriller convention of a protagonist whose destruction is caused by their own hubris being taken advantage of by others, because if they're that much of a jerk, why feel badly for them? Besides, if he's a cop, hasn't he worked bunco or harassed a couple Roma before, can't he see the David Mamet plot unfolding?

But if the same story had played out with him as a desperate father, appealing to the parental sympathies of the islanders, then his betrayal at the end would have carried poignance and heartbreak. Then Summersisle is truly evil because the matriarchy has turned his parental instincts against him, just as Joanna Eberhart fucks up her successful escape in the hopes of "saving" her children and winds up being turned into another one of THE STEPFORD WIVES. In fact, Cage does undergo a similar sort of doublecross in MATCHSTICK MEN, when his con artist character learns that he has been taken by the girl he believed to be his daughter. In that film, it takes on a unique redemptive turn, because though he has been robbed clean, he acknowledges that he was ready to give up his life and his riches to save his "daughter," and therefore, he accepts the results. Thus, as Howie prayed fervently to his God during his last moments of life in the original, Malus should have spent less time moaning about "you bitches" and "the bees" and instead frantically cried out, "ROWAN, YOU'RE MY LITTLE GIRL, I LOVE YOU!" instead. One always feels more empathy for a fallen dad than a nosy cop.

Finally, to cement the suckitude, the "six months later" ending. (Which, in fairness, was a studio-mandated reshoot; the original ending can be found as a supplement on the DVD) Ho-ho, here we go again, another male getting lured into the scam. (Wouldn't spidery metaphors be more appropriate here than bees?) Not only is it unnecessary, but it's been done already in the terrible "it's a ripoff of THE WICKER MAN but they'll never sue us" '80's movie SPELLBINDER with Kelly Preston. I'm sure it's not intentional on LaBute's behalf, only unlucky cable surfers like me have ever seen that lump of wicca slander, but it's lazy. And I'm just mad that I have to be reminded of that loss of my earth time after this loss of my earth time.

Perhaps we've got it all wrong. Maybe, as Kim Morgan has suggested, the whole thing is really a comedy. After all, LaBute's films are often intentionally funny, albeit a very dark humor, the school of "cleaning blood of the clown suit" punchlines. In some cities, midnight screenings are filled with smart-alecks chanting "NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES!" the way children watching Looney Tunes would chant, "No, not 'The Post'! ANYTHING BUT 'THE POST'!" But no, I don't buy it. LaBute was trying to be scary, and the only thing that scared me was that this movie was going to be a bad turn in his career. Seeing as how he has been currently doing paycheck gigs like LAKEVIEW TERRACE and the current remake of DEATH AT A FUNERAL, in that respect, my prophecy has sadly come true.

So, Could This Movie Be Saved? Had LaBute thought a little harder about what motivates irrational behavior besides base hormonal rage, yes. But he didn't. And thus we are left with a font of failure that is honey for a parade of nasty stingers.


  1. My favorite moment is the little montage showing Cage searching the island. He walks in every direction, the shots fading into each other (if memory serves), like you might see in an early Hollywood crime movie. In this context, it just struck me as hilarious for some reason. I don't normally like to pull the "so bad it's good" card, but LaBute's Wicker Man is as worthy as any of this title. I don't really get the impression that any of it was intentionally comedic.

  2. I do think this is a comedy.

    And, please, that's not even a spoiler anymore.

  3. A Heather O`Rourke obsessed lunaticJune 16, 2010 at 3:15 AM

    I actually thought this was better than the 1972 original which to me has always been a ludicrously over-rated pile of British made garbage anyway.

  4. That's because you're a retard.