The Wicker Man
Love can make us do the strangest things. Just ask Neil Labute, the writer/director of In the Company of Men, Our Friends and Neighbours and The Shape of Things. Labute, for all his inconsistencies, has long been noted as the foremost chronicler of the uglier side of human nature - misogyny, abuse and a Mametian talent for filthy talk are all in a day’s work for Labute. His belief that ‘entertainment should be good, not nice or carefree’, seemed to chime with his inability to make a commercial film despite the persistent interest in his work of some of the biggest names in the industry (Ben Stiller, Morgan Freeman and Renée Zellweger have all starred in his films). Indeed, until now, Labute’s desire to polarise an audience has seemed his sole raison d’etre. And then he fell in love.
Labute says he made the new version of The Wicker Man because, like many of us, he was so obsessed with Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s bizarre and brilliant 1973 mystery about an uptight Protestant Highlands policeman who comes to the small island of Summersisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, only to find maypole dancing, folk singing locals, free morals and a mad laird in the shape of a cross-dressing Christopher Lee. Shaffer’s original novel and screenplay dealt with ideas that Labute wouldn’t touch in a month of Sundays - notably, communal forbearance, the sacrifice (quite literally) of the individual for the good of the group and pagan ideas of worship and bio diversity. It seems however that Labute was so fascinated by this gem of British horror that he was willing to put his (let’s face it) diminishing reputation on the line with this interesting remake.
Keeping large chunks of Shaffer’s original script intact, Labute works hard to find good reason for Californian motorcycle cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) to be on the remote North Pacific Island of Summersisle, now a kind of women’s commune (containing a few dopey labourer men) presided over by (and here’s the twist) Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), the enigmatic creator of an alternative feminine society (there are shades of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale in her vision however). Labute certainly has a good grasp of the material and there are enough jumps and thrills and general eeriness to the set up to make you realise that Labute’s goals are genuinely born of love for the original and not some mistaken belief that he can make a better film than the extremely un-prolific Robin Hardy.
The trouble is that all the more bonkers incidental pleasures are missing. Gone is Paul Giovanni’s odd, incongruous, euphoric folky score; gone is the deeply symbolic beetle on a string, the frogs in the mouth; gone is the naked fertility dance and gone are the scenes of orgiastic sex on the village green. In its place, unsurprisingly, is violence, and plenty of it, especially to women. Cage makes a good fist of the dislikeable discombobulated officer, so clearly out of his depth, but virgin soil he is not and this greatly undermines the final scenes of the film. To be fair though, Angelo Badalmenti’s score and Paul Sarossy’s excellent (superior to the original film) cinematography help one forget if not totally forgive the liberties taken here. Like Gus van Sant’s Psycho or Alexandre Aja The Hills Have Eyes, this is less a movie than an imprint, a homage, a gift to the cinema gods of yore.
Out now on general release.