What do you get if you take Robin Hardy’s cult classic The Wicker Man, and then take out religion and sex? And folk music?
That’s the question writer-director Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty) sets out to answer in his 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. After watching the film, I’m still unsure of the answer.
Watching Hardy’s 1973 film, I find myself wondering what exactly it is I’m watching. Watching LaBute’s remake, I find myself wondering what exactly it is the filmmakers thought they were making. Is it meant as a feminist revenge fantasy, or as a critique of feminism? Is it misogynistic or just misanthropic? The original Wicker Man offered two different points of view, Christian and pagan; the remake falls somewhat short of one. It’s not a badly made film, just a pointless one.
One way to see the original Wicker Man is as a subversion of the Hammer horror genre, a story of menace and dread shot in the broad light of day and scored to placid guitar folk rather than ominous orchestral arrangements, eschewing gothic atmosphere, infernal evils, crosses and other sacramentals, and (spoiler alert) above all the triumph of good over evil.
While following the broadest outlines of the original plot, the remake embraces current genre conventions with aplomb. Right at the start, for instance, we get a particularly clunky instance of that familiar trope from the Big Book of Movie Clichés, the Unrelated Incident that Sets the Mood and Provides the Troubled Hero’s Motivation to Redeem Himself.
Relocated from Scotland to the American West Coast, the film opens with California motorcycle cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) cruising along a stretch of desert highway. A flying doll dislodged from a moving station wagon precipitates an encounter with an apologetic mother and a contrary little girl of about ten who, with her blond braided pigtails and red sweater, happens to bear a striking resemblance to the child in the photograph Malus will soon receive — and who acts exactly as if she knows she’s in a prologue of a scary movie intended to creep out the protagonist and the audience. So does the truck driver, more or less. It all works out.
Suitably freaked out and prepped for the movie, Malus is vulnerable when he receives unexpected word from long-lost ex-fiancée Willow Woodward (Kate Beahan; the character’s last name is for Ed Woodward, the star of the original). Willow left Malus at the altar without explanation a decade or so earlier. Now her letter pleads with him to come to the private island community of Summersisle, somewhere in the area of Puget Sound, and investigate the disappearance of her daughter Rowan, seen in the enclosed photo as about ten, with blond braided pigtails and a red sweater.
The prospect of addressing two bits of unfinished business — closure with ex-fiancée; rescue blond-braided, red-sweatered ten-year-old girl — reels him in, and he treks up to Washington State, where he bribes a seaplane pilot to run him out to the island. It’s a significant departure from the original that Malus is out of his jurisdiction when he heads for Summersisle (Summerisle in the original; if there’s a point to the extra s, I haven’t run across it). Still, he figures he can throw his weight around.
Once on on the island, though, he encounters more or less the same sort of runaround, elliptical responses and misdirection that his counterpart faced in the original. Once again no one recognizes the girl in the photo, though as far as I can tell nearly every child on Summersisle is a fair-haired ten-year-old girl with braids or pigtails or both, so how can they tell? For that matter, a number of the Summersisle natives look like other natives; there seems to be a lot of twinning, or in-breeding, or both, going on.
Malus’s reunion with Willow, who offers only fretful half-apologies, half-explanations and vague warnings, is frustrating and strange. Whether Rowan is really missing, or ever existed at all, or is in danger, or is dead already, is always in doubt, along with how much Willow, who grew up on Summersisle and returned after ditching Malus, knows about all of this.
Also in doubt is how much of what Malus sees is real. Traumatized by that convenient unrelated incident, he has recurring hallucinations, a conceit LaBute relies on for cheap tension when things get too slow. This works a few times, and then it starts to backfire: Instead of providing extra chills, it drains the chill out of everything, because everything he sees could be all in his head, which is a separate issue from the Summersisle cult. How many of the times he spots a blond-braided girl in the distance and gives chase is anything really there?
In place of the cheerfully erotic fertility neopaganism of the original, with its yin and yang of sun god and earth goddess, on Summersisle practically everyone Malus meets is Sister This or Sister That. Eventually we see that males do exist, but are silent and subservient. The ubiquitous bees, hives and honey provide the connection: This is an apicultural cult with an apian culture of its own, a hive-like colony of bee-like beekeepers, a matriarchal world of empowered female workers and mute, disposable drones. (LaBute’s Summersisle bears less resemblance to the Summerisle of the original than to the world of another 1973 tale of neopagan intrigue, Thomas Tryon’s novel Harvest Home, set in an isolated rural community in Connecticut dominated by a matriarchal cult where men who know too much have their tongues cut out.)
For LaBute, this is where the action is: men, women and power. All of his films pit men against women and women against men, and whether LaBute’s men hate women because men are evil or because women are, and whether his women hate men because that’s what women do or because that’s what men do, is unclear to me.
LaBute has no interest in the theme of competing religious worldviews; religion has been essentially excised from the story. Where the original protagonist was a fervent Christian, the closest hint of a worldview from Malus comes from the self-help tapes he buys in the opening scene, which, strangely, go missing on Summersisle. Even the Summersisle cult doesn’t pack a religious punch; LaBute is only interested in their gender politics, not their spirituality.
When Malus meets Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), the remake’s distaff version of the Christopher Lee character in the original and the queen bee of the Summersisle hive, he ventures to suggest that men are second-class citizens in their world. She calmly demurs: “We love our men. We just aren’t subservient to them.” Then she adds, “The men are a very important part of our little colony. Breeding, you know.” So, they have men, and sex; it’s just that, like the spirituality, it doesn’t matter much. It’s all very utilitarian, kind of like drones.
Of course, the apian analogy only goes so far. Human biology being what it is, you can’t have one grey-haired matriarch doing all the breeding for the community. It also turns out that the Summersisle cult practices cross-pollination outside the hive, and if you hadn’t figured it out already, I don’t think it’s giving away too much to reveal that Malus eventually learns that Willow’s missing daughter is his own.
This raises one of the remake’s intractable plot-level problems, an issue it shares with another recent remake, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds. Let’s call it the Phony Back Story Fallacy. (Major spoiler alert.)
In the original Wicker Man, the anonymous tip about a missing child turns out to be a bid to lure Sergeant Howie to Summerisle. In the remake, the trap is expanded to include Willow’s departure from Summersisle ten years earlier, her romance and engagement with Malus, and her conception of Rowan before leaving him and returning to the island. All of this, apparently, is part of the normal life cycle at Summersisle; the film even ends with a “six months later” coda (excised from the director’s cut) depicting Sister Willow and Sister Honey on the mainland putting the moves on a couple of cops in a bar.
Didn’t anyone notice the preposterous ratio of high-cost investment with extremely poor likelihood of return? Leave the island, romance a cop, get him all the way to the altar, conceive his child, and then… hope that ten years later he’s still around, still single and still sufficiently hung up on you to come running at the drop of a hat, assuming the universe is obliging enough to provide a convenient unrelated incident that sets the mood and provides the troubled hero’s motivation to redeem himself? (Unless that too was somehow orchestrated as part of the trap? That would really up the investment level.)
And do they always get cops who are allergic to bees, or is that one more coincidence? And do they do it in ten-year cycles, so that all the girls are the same age? (Apparently the Summersisle women selectively abort many of their male fetuses, though why they keep them in jars of formaldehyde in some back room is anyone’s guess.) Finally, having gone to all this trouble, why treat the cop’s paternity as a big secret? Wouldn’t most men feel more obliged to come if it were their own kid?
It all makes about as much sense as alien invaders so seasoned in their work that they pre-seed target planets hundreds of millennia in advance with their engines of war, yet green enough to get caught flat-footed by a lowly virus. Sometimes a crime of opportunity is more plausible than an elaborately premeditated and preplanned one.
Still, I find myself wondering whether returning Summersisle man-hunters communicate to others likely spots for picking up cops. Do they use a dance language? Perhaps wisely, LaBute avoids such possibilities; any dance sequence imaginable would immediately become the prime target of unfavorable comparisons to the original.
This isn’t the only point on which the cult’s evil plot makes no sense. Again and again they do things to Malus that seem to have no motivation at all. In one sequence, following the sound of a child crying that he may or may not be hallucinating, he discovers what looks like Rowan’s red sweater in a ruined church in a grate over the entrance to a flooded crypt. He props open the grate and dives into the water, where a submerged statue of Christ provides the movie’s one and only notable reference to Christianity. Naturally, while he’s down there, someone blocks the crypt entrance, and Malus is trapped underwater all night until his cries bring Sister Willow to free him.
Cui bono? How does any of this serve the community’s interests? If he drowns in the crypt, they’re back to square one, and if he doesn’t, what was the point? Unlike the original film’s attempted seduction of the hero, which can be construed as a test of his worthiness, nothing about the crypt scene suggests any purpose or meaning. Assuming the crying was real, why lure him to the crypt? Why plant the sweater? Why block him in?
What’s with the burned doll Malus finds — another seemingly chance connection to the Unrelated Incident? Did they burn a doll to make him think Rowan had been burned to death? This late in the game, isn’t the idea to make him think that Rowan is alive and in danger, not dead already?
Elements adopted from the first film don’t work in their new setting. In the schoolhouse scene, LaBute retains the startle value of a schoolmarm teaching young students about phallic symbols — but in such a desexed cult with such a castrated masculinity, wouldn’t phallic symbols be almost as irrelevant as crucifixes? Late in the film Sister Summersisle recycles the line from the original about “a martyr’s death,” but this is specifically Christian language that makes no sense either in Summersisle’s ostensibly neopagan context or Malus’s generic secular one.
The gender politics subtext eventually comes down to Malus going mano-a-mano with hostile women, generally knocking them flat one by one until the whole colony rises up against him. As a response to feminist hostility to men, this seems, well, ham-fisted. (And hang it all, how many cops can there be who can’t tell by the weight of their own firearm whether or not it has bullets in it?)
What did LaBute think he was doing? The mission seems as doomed as that of the protagonist.
Is The Wicker Man anti-Christian? Anti-pagan? Anti-religion? Where are its sympathies? Does it have any? Like baffled, blustering Sergeant Howie, blundering about the clannish Summerisle community trying to investigate a missing child, we are asking the wrong questions, assuming the wrong rules, wandering ever further off course, walking into a trap.
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Love the site — but please get rid of the The Wicker Man “Coming Soon” notice for goodness sakes. Been there for years and you never add or review it!
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