The True Nature of Sacrifice1/10
Prior to this release, Neil LaBute had this to say about the 1973 original: "It's surprising how many people say it's their favorite soundtrack. I'm like, come on! You may not like the new one, but if that's your favorite soundtrack, I don't know if I *want* you to like my film."
Neil, a word. You might want to sit down for this too; as Lord Summerisle says, shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent. See, Neil, the thing about the original, is that Paul Giovanni's soundtrack is one of the most celebrated things about it. The filmmakers themselves consider it a virtual musical. Along with Richard and Danny Thompson, and Bert Jansch, it practically kick-started the 1970s Folk New Wave. To undermine it is akin to imagining Jaws without John Williams. Or The Buddy Holly Story without Buddy Holly. The result's one of the most breathtakingly arrogant, pointless remake of a British cult classic since Sly Stallone's Get Carter.
The original had apparently left Nicolas Cage "disturbed for about two weeks." So disturbed, during that fortnight's window, that he pitched the idea of re-imagining one of the most nuanced films about inter-faith struggle ever devised to a writer-director previously known for his wholly unsubtle depictions of male chauvinism. It's like some parlor game: what would you get if Sam Peckinpah took on Bambi? Or Gaspar "Irreversible" Noe remade Love, Actually?(Actually, I'd quite like to see that). Unfortunately, someone took this parlor game seriously: All LaBute's succeeded in doing is ripping out the original's guts while saddling it with his own gormless Sex War preoccupations.
After failing to rescue a little girl and her mum from a fatal car crash, Cage's highway patrolman spirals into a medicated torpor. Then he receives a letter from ex-fiancee Willow Woodward (this one trades on name-homages for kudos), now living on the private island community of Summersisle that extra 's' stands for 'superfluous' and wants Edward to help locate missing daughter Rowan.
Summersisle, it transpires, is a female-dominated joint, conceived as a haven for oppressed womenfolk and refugees from the Salem witch trials. Here, the matriarchs observe the Olde ways, and the few males are near-mute breed-mules. It's like Lilith Fair on a grand scale. Summersisle's main export is honey a symbolic and literal headache for Edward, as he's allergic to bees. "Beekeepers!" cries Edward. "They seem to be everywhere on this island!" Well, that's probably because Summersisle's main export is honey.
While making his investigations, Edward overhears of an oncoming Mayday ritual called "the time of death and rebirth". He discovers the previous year's crop failed; nearly dies from bee stings; and eventually comes to the conclusion (a conclusion which admittedly couldn't be more obvious if the locals had tattooed a timetable of events on the back of his hands) that Rowan will be burnt alive in a pagan rite to ensure a bountiful harvest. He also meets the Queen Bee of the hive, Sister Summersisle (Burstyn), who has her own plans for him involving the eponymous Wicker Man: "The drone must die."
First, the good news: any concerns Cage would be airlifted from the Wicker Man's flaming jaws at the last minute by a fleet of black CIA helicopters can be laid to rest: he toast. That's about it for the good news. "This is a story whose chapters were carefully written" intones Burstyn with sublime irony. Though retaining the basic cat-and-mouse premise (and credits typography), what's left subjects the original to a scorched-earth policy.
Crucial to Shaffer's original screenplay was that his Christian copper, in accordance with ritual, came to the island of his own free will and most importantly, was a virgin; the perfect sacrifice. In reducing matters to a sexual, as opposed to a religious power-struggle, LaBute presents the flimsiest of qualifiers for a harvest sacrifice. By the time Cage has worked out he was the bait, you honestly couldn't care less.
And Cage is one of the very worst things in this; a lumbering, drawling donkey an arsewit whose tongue seems just slightly too big for his mouth. "Goddamit" he moans after he hallucinates a drowned Rowan, with all the mental torment of a man who's set his morning alarm clock half-an-hour too early. One hopes it's his character's frequent reliance on pills that has reduced him to this state alternately fatigued, then full of preppy, overbearing vim. If so, it's a fine portrayal of an undistinguished IQ addled with anti-depressants. If not
it doesn't bear thinking about. As Willow, the saucer-eyed Beahan is similarly dreadful, presenting her lines as if in competition with Cage for the
delivery. While Burstyn entirely lacks the mercurial menace to convince. Who's afraid of Naomi Wolf?
Every element that made the original great the lovingly detailed depictions of folk customs, the ingenious score, the dialogue (Lord Summerisle's majestic "You did it beautifully!" has been replaced with the rather less attractive "You did it excellently!" Whoah, dude!) have been substituted for a meandering battle-of-the-sexes thriller with occasional crash-bang wallop. Namely, walloping women; this is a LaBute flick, after all. Cage's Sister Beech bashing is just one of the more embarrassing episodes; impotent little men will be hooting with glee at how them uppity hippie chicks finally got what was comin' to 'em, hyuk hyuk.
The closing coda sees the whole rotten mess collapsing under the weight of genre cliche: in a bar, two guys run into a couple of Summersisle maidens on shore leave, flirty-fishing for fresh martyrs. At the moment of their successful pick-up, you half expect the women to turn round and give an exaggerated wink and a thumbs up to the camera.
One more thing: keen credit watchers may have noticed that films sporting an unusually high producer count (anything up to 10) tend to be Not Much Cop. The Wicker Man has 18 producers in total.