94) The Wicker Man (2006) Dir: Neil LaBute Date Released: September 2006 Date Seen: April 1st, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5
The contemporary discussion regarding writer/director Neil LaBute’s re-imagined version of Robin Hardy and Anthony Schaffer’s The Wicker Man (1973) is problematically facile, devolving into two main condemnations. One camp accuses it of being laughably bad misogynistic trash while the other insists that the film’s delirious campiness is what it makes it a classic guilty pleasure. Both arguments willfully ignore crucial and integral clues that LaBute leaves along the way that have led me to believe that it’s an unsuccessful black comedy, one whose bombastic humor clouds its brash but relatively subtle critique of the phallocentricism inherent in the original film.
LaBute’s Wicker Man (2006) may be a smug and cocky re-interpretation of Schaffer’s screenplay but it also recognizes the absurdity of the original film's main conflict. In Schaffer’s version, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) might as well be the last Christian man on Earth, a stuffy but self-assured copper who confronts the residents of Summerisle, who are by contrast a horde of anti-nomian heathens. They’re his worst nightmare, a collective that is slow to respond to demands, equivocates even in the face of absolute certainty and worst of all, speaks plainly about sexuality, even in the schoolhouses (“And what does the Maypole represent, class?”). As their immodest clothing and bawdy singing indicates, they’re barbarically unchristian and fiercely proud of it. Summersisle is Howie’s Bizarroworld in miniature, a land where his prim and orderly methods are heretically held against him, making his death at the stake cruelly ironic.
In LaBute’s version, that hysterical fear of paganism is transformed into a blind distrust of strident femininity. Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) is a swinging dick motorcycle cop whose world is turned upside down when he’s unable to play the gallant knight and save a mother and daughter from a tragic and incredibly bizarre collision with a speeding 16-wheeler. This shatters his confidence and erodes his simple, chauvinistic worldview, as depicted by the western he’s watching at home. Aimlessly looking for answers, he seeks help in the most unlikely places— as a clichéd, all-powerful alpha male, one of the first signs we get of Malus’ cartoonish fear of inadequacy is that he resorts to a self-help book called Everything’s Ok! Now a broken man, he jumps at the opportunity to save the day when an incredible letter from an old flame provides him with a mystery and puts him on a chivalrous quest to find Rowan, a girl he’s never met but immediately suspects is his child.
From the very beginning, Malus is presented as the butt of the film’s final killing joke. On his way to Summersisle, he’s rudely awoken from a daydream of Rowan when the 16-wheeler that originally careened into her re-appears to finish the job (this is the first but sadly not last time it does so). His comically entitled attitude on the island confirms that he’s intentionally a parodic representation of empty-headed male patriarchal entitlement and not just an absurd and ill-defined B-movie protagonist. To get to Summerisle, he bribes his way there, joking with the pilot about fitting on board “all of us” just before whipping out some leafy green bills. Likewise, he responds to initial inquiries by suspicious natives with a blustery and insincere sense of superiority, making an ass of himself at every turn of his investigation by answering understandably defensive questions with thuggish answers like “I’m a cop.”
Alas, LaBute shoots himself in the foot by not consistently characterizing Malus with that kind of toothless distortion of macho behavior. As his fall guy and protagonist, Malus is alternately portrayed as a shrill critique of male ego-centricism and a sympathetic protagonist, making it impossible to see him as a plausible grotesque scapegoat. His douchebag attitude and blustery proclamations make his final, Ed Averyesque denouncement of “You bitches!” a terrific release of all the film’s ludicrous and uneven build-up but at that point, it also looks like one of several gaffes on LaBute’s part. What should be an ironically fatalistic triumph over the all-threatening phallic symbol turns out to be a Raimian freak-out that gives the Youtube rubberneckers exactly what they came for.