Tuesday, March 31, 2009

93) The Wicker Man (1973)

93) The Wicker Man (1973) Dir: Robin Hardy Date Released: June 1975 Date Seen: March 31st, 2009 Rating: 2.5/5

Though it’s often miscategorized as a horror film, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) is more accurately a very peculiar and self-defeating thriller. The film’s haunting atmosphere only serves to heighten its procedural plot, which is unfortunate considering how easily Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward), its hard-nosed, “Christian copper” protagonist, procures information. As the viewer’s stand-in, he serves as a cultural voyeur on the island of Summerisle, a Disneyland version of an isolated community ruled by real Pagan beliefs and rituals. Though his anger with their heathen ways would seem righteous enough to force answers out of thin air, the islanders’ free and loose habits make them more than willing to tell him everything he wants to know about the island and Rowan Morrison, the native girl whose disappearance he was anonymously asked to investigate. So much for good old-fashioned detective work.

Summerisle’s residents’ initial reticence is just the first step in a cruel storytelling ritual performed by screenwriter Anthony Schaffer. The relation of information starts with a teasing protest like, “No, we don’t know any Rowan Morrison,” proceeds with a rebuke and then continues with total disclosure. Rather than supply some sort of suspenseful build-up along the way, Shaffer provides a slack series of easy info dumps. These confrontations are supposed to make the answers Howie gets look earned, relying heavily on his increasing distaste and eventual revulsion. At the same time, not even Howie’s best putdowns—the most damning one comes when Rowan’s mother asks if she can do anything for him and he scowls, “No, I doubt it, seeing you’re all raving mad!”—could accomplish such a monumental task.

Schaffer’s script drolly acknowledges its lack of subtlety—a child tumbles out of a closet during Sgt. Howie’s frantic door-to-door search for Rowan—as if to show that the Summerisle community has nothing to hide from him or us. This might be believable if it weren’t for the fact that Howie has to pull teeth just to get the natives to admit that any such person as Rowan Morrison exists. Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, with an amazing helmet hair/kilt combination) is the only one entitled enough to be freely giving away information to Howie like table scraps, but that’s because he’s a blue blood and not one of the uncouth gentry. They don’t speak as plainly as Summerisle does, using bawdy traditional songs and limericks to tease Howie with their ribald beliefs, making one wonder who has the real power in Schaffer’s version of Pagantown, UK.

On the one hand, Summerisle would seem to be the people’s spokesperson, divulging more information than any other single native. He not only gives Howie a brief oral history of the island’s settlement, which the viewer will hear twice—in case they were distracted by his hair—but also spells out his hatred for Christianity and monotheism in general as a means of introducing himself. This is done through an operatic soliloquy with Summerisle booming his fiery rhetoric at him in the courtyard below Howie’s open window as he says his evening prayers. Like Iago in Verdi’s Otello, whose wicked deeds are similarly motivated by his belief in a “cruel God,” Summerisle is sick of people who claim to have a “duty to God,” preferring the mindlessness of animals:

“Not one of them kneels to another or to his own kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one of them is respectable or unhappy, all over the Earth.”

This careless nugget of information is tossed aside while the townsfolk sing along to the gentle but persistent noises of frantic copulation emanating from the window adjacent to Howie’s. Schaffer no doubt chose to heap Summerisle’s explanation on top of this telling act of coitus as a means of establishing his hierarchy amongst the group but in the process, he forfeits the scene’s ability to unnerve.

On the other hand, the islanders’ habits, especially their off-kilter singing and dancing, are the community’s most powerful and bewitching source of eerie fascination. Considering how open they are with their sexuality and religious habits, as in the frank schoolhouse conversation about the Maypole’s significance, their skittishness regarding Rowan Morrison’s disappearance is almost comical. With a little, ahem, prodding, they eventually give in to Howie’s demands for answers like a coquettish schoolgirl. No door is ever really closed to him—he discovers the secret of the town’s May Day rituals in, of all the arcane places, the public library. This is about as devious as watching children follow a path of bread crumbs and just as exciting to boot.

This of course leads to the worst possible twist, namely the revelation that Howie’s investigation was supposed to seem too easy as Summerisle was leading him on “every step of the way.” This basically means that everything that Howie and we by proxy have learned to that point is meaningless, a ruse meant to lead us to Howie’s inevitable death, which is only gripping if you can accept that the film’s mystery plot was rigged the whole time. Watching Schaffer’s vision of what traditional British paganism looks like today is only so interesting when the plot that that cultural survey is predicated on after it’s revealed to be a sham. 

1 comment:

  1. As you admit, THE WICKER MAN hardly cheats in executing it's premise. It builds up Woodward as an upright prig who seems to coast on the idea that because he is virtuous he will prevail. Since the film's audience is assumed to be mostly Judeo-Christian, Hardy plays on common assumptions that one should side with him even though all indications are Woodward is a colossal prick. The subversive idea is that the pagans ultimately win by playing him (and us, by proxy) for fools.

    View this from today's political standpoint where isolationist conservatives have turned so insular in respect to national security they have forgotten the only way to understand the "other" is to open one's mind to them, and the movie resonates all the more.