When I first heard that Neil LaBute was writing and directing a remake of The Wicker Man, my reaction was... mixed. On the one hand, I'm a big fan of the original film, and doubted it would survive the transition from 1973 England to 2006 Hollywood. The first thing to go, I rightly guessed, would be the weird folk music, which is the main reason I watched it in the first place. But I'm an even bigger fan of Neil LaBute, whose modern morality plays are some of the smartest and funniest theater out there. (I'm still sad about missing This Is How It Goes off-Broadway.) Can a writer/director I respect save a good movie from the mud-dragging process of a Hollywood remake?
Unfortunately not, it seems. I wouldn't exactly say The Wicker Man remake is a bad movie. It has some legitimately funny moments, and even a couple scary ones. (I would say that the score is good, but I'm still miffed about the absence of creepy folk music.) But it certainly is a movie that doesn't know what it wants to be— a far cry from the self-assured weirdness of Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer's hallucinatory original. In a recent interview at Nerve about the universally negative response to the film, LaBute admitted as much. He also, perhaps inadvertantly, pointed out the precise reason why the film failed— it ain't got religion.
The original Wicker Man is a story about the clash of spiritual ideologies. Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a straightlaced police officer, arrives at an isolated commune called Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing child. The townspeople are bafflingly unhelpful, providing contradictory answers to his questions or simply ignoring them to focus on hedonistic preparations for an upcoming festival. Before too long, Howie learns that Summerisle is the last enclave of a pre-Christian Druidic society. The more Howie discovers about the island, the more he disapproves. His investigation ceases to be about the missing girl and becomes a crusade against paganism. When he finally learns the secret— well, there's no need for a spoiler. (If you know anything about Druidic rituals, you probably know what the title refers to anyway). But suffice it to say that Howie's religious beliefs are the whole point of the story.
And that's precisely what LaBute leaves out. In the Nerve interview, he states that "the clash of religions in the original film did not feel as immediate to me, and I decided to go more into gender politics, which were of more interest to me." Perhaps this is no surprise coming from LaBute, whose career is built on bleak satires on gender relations. But he's no stranger to religious themes, either, having written several short plays skewering moral hypocrisy in the Mormon culture that raised him. It would have been interesting if he had turned his wit to those aspects of this story, but instead we get a statement on sexual politics that undermines what made The Wicker Man good in the first place.
In LaBute's version, Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) is a cop lured to Summersisle (a cookie to anyone who can come up with a good reason for adding in that clunky S in the middle), which is governed by a spooky matriarchal cult. The men of the island are timid, traumatized slaves. (Cue beehive symbolism.) Malus, instead of a tightly-wound representative of law and order, is a nonspecific jerk who's equal parts arrogant swagger and self-help-book anxiety. It's tough to get a handle on why he reacts to things the way he does. (It doesn't help that Cage's performance is typically flat and impenetrable.) But this is a character that needs to be not just an arrogant prig, but a piously arrogant prig.
And, as a pagan reviewer for the Guardian points out, the depiction of Summersisle as a dystopian matriarchy doesn't help matters, either. The fun of the original comes from watching Sergeant Howie's frustration at the commune's hedonism. The original Summerisle looks like a nice place to live— an idealistic, agrarian commune where everyone is happy. There are creepy moments, sure— but much of that creepiness comes from the Summerislander's transparent glee at Howie's righteous anger. We the audience think he's wrong for preaching against their paganism— but because we know his character's beliefs, we understand where he's coming from. We may disagree with his appraisal, but we at least understand his indignation.
LaBute's version of Summersisle takes all that away. Not for a second does the commune seem like a nice place to live. Its spookiness is all on the surface, and apparent from the beginning— crows flying out of unexpected places, mysterious burlap sacks dripping blood. We immediately know that Bad Things are going to happen to any outsider on the island. Ironically, this spookiness, when coupled with Malus's action hero agnosticism— is missing where it is needed most, at the film's climax. Sergeant Howie's manic praying and hymn-singing is terrifying when he meets his fate in the original film; Sergeant Malus's wordless scream, by contrast, is an anticlimax.
The Wicker Man remake could have been a great movie about the clash of religions, and instead it's a failed movie about the clash of the sexes. Robin Hardy has announced a... well, a remake or a sequel or a reimagining or something called Cowboys For Christ which may fare better, especially with Christopher Lee reprising his role as the pagans' leader. In the meantime, watch The Shape of Things, listen to "Corn Rigs" or "Willow's Song," and pretend that The Wicker Man and LaBute never crossed paths. He'll do better next time.