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Baity says, Wicker Man goes up in smoke

by Glen Baity

All right, first things first: before we get too deep into scary movie season, let’s go down our list and make sure we haven’t forgotten anything, lest we end up like those Blair Witch kids.

Let’s see’….Secluded town? Check.

Standoffish locals? Check.

Urgent, indecipherable voices whispering on the wind? Check.

And most important of all: creepy kids? Check and mate.

Yes, all the key elements are in place for The Wicker Man, the latest from writer/director Neil LaBute, and a remake of a 1973 film of the same name.

LaBute has had his hits and misses in the past. Nurse Betty was a great, original piece of filmmaking that flew just under the radar, and four years ago he answered it with The Shape of Things, a virtually unwatchable film of jaw-dropping pretension.

He heads down a whole new path with The Wicker Man, which is every bit as unintentionally hilarious as Snakes on a Plane was supposed to be. The film’s lone saving grace – and this is arguable – is that it might be extraordinary in its mediocrity, making it that rare picture so thoroughly impervious to its own flaws that it demands repeat viewing. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but the film surely misses its intended mark.

Nicolas Cage plays California police officer Edward Malus, who takes a leave of absence after unsuccessfully attempting to pull a woman and her daughter from a flaming car wreck. While recuperating from the psychological strain of the incident, he receives a letter from his former fiancée Willow (Kate Beahan), who requests his help tracking down her missing daughter Rowan.

Malus sets off for Willow’s new home on Summersisle, a bucolic private island in the Pacific Northwest accessible only by boat or plane. What he finds upon his arrival is a town not unlike the one in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village: the residents speak in vaguely antiquated colloquialisms, dress like Puritans, and spend their days chopping firewood, tending to the beehives and preparing for the coming harvest. There are no phones, no cars and no paved roads. But they do have – I kid you not – an honest-to-god mead wench.

I know what you’re thinking: paradise, right? Would you be surprised to learn that something isn’t on the up-and-up in this quaint little outpost?

The questions begin piling up as soon as Malus begins his investigation. Why does everyone pretend they’ve never heard of Rowan? What’s this ‘Festival of Death and Life’ everyone keeps talking about? Why are all the women named after plants (Sister Rose, Dr. Moss, etc.), and why do they outnumber the men by a 10-to-one ratio? Why do the few men, like whipped dogs, refuse to make eye contact? And who’s this ‘Wicker Man’?

The answers to those questions become obvious less than halfway through the film, but there are also some more subtle ones: What connection does the car crash at the beginning have to Summersisle? Why do some of the townspeople seem to have identical twins running around? Why is the only church on the island in ruins, its cemetery overgrown and mostly unused?

To the film’s detriment, these last questions go largely unanswered, causing the scarce suspense to peter out with little fanfare. It doesn’t help matters that LaBute hangs signposts all over this movie to indicate its direction (at one point, for example, Malus happens on a book helpfully titled Rituals of the Ancients), all the while throwing up obvious red herrings in the form of hackneyed dream sequences and apparitions. He’s able to gin up a few cheap scares, but nothing that establishes an enduring atmosphere.

One of the more nagging mysteries is how so many good actors landed in this laughable film. Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker and Frances Conroy are each well overqualified for their roles, and they all look patently ridiculous, especially during the absurd ending. The film relies heavily on Cage, who is in nearly every scene. He’s affable enough here, as far as that goes, though as a police officer his character is amazingly inept.

The audience is clearly meant to be dazzled by the enigmatic mythology of Summersisle, but little light is ever shed on it. Following suit, the most intriguing aspects of this film reside behind doors that are permanently locked, and what is offered up instead is graceless and thoroughly predictable. Creepy kids and pagan rituals do not a horror film make, and mysteries are only as good as the satisfaction they ultimately deliver. As a comedy, The Wicker Man has its moments, but its loftier ambitions go up in smoke.

Dance Glen Baity around the maypole when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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