There’s a story I heard a while back that, while most likely untrue, is nonetheless fairly entertaining to consider: Rumor has it that Nicolas Cage, somewhere around his late-’90s, post-Leaving Las Vegas, circa The Rock-through-Snake Eyes period, attended some highfalutin’ social event or other and was summarily decked by then-good-friend Sean Penn for no longer being what Penn considered “a real actor.” (Other accounts suggest that the pair merely engaged in a bit of media-aided quote-sparring, but that’s disappointingly less dramatic — and besides, if there’s a fellow more liable than the ex-Mr.-Madonna to assault a dude for questionable acting choices, I don’t know of him.)
Since that inauspicious (and possibly fabricated) occasion, Cage’s collective screen time has been peppered with quality outings (Adaptation, The Weather Man), but has also quite often taken the form of the sort of fare (Gone in Sixty Seconds, National Treasure) that would presumably threaten to once again turn the erstwhile Jeff Spicoli into the aforementioned taste-police Hulk. And the now-playing, Cage-produced revisit of the 1973 British favorite The Wicker Man, unfortunately, is far from the quarrel-quelling cine-event that’ll have the two old friends sipping cocktails at Spago and reminiscing about Fast Times.
Cage plays California cop Edward Malus, who receives a troubling letter from a former fiancée asking him to come to Summersisle, a small, secluded island where she says her daughter has gone missing. Upon arriving, Malus finds a neo-pagan (which is to say, nature-worshiping), matriarchal, beekeeping society where the men are speechless workers, the harvest is paramount, and all deference is given to Sister Summersisle (Burstyn).
At first blush, Neil LaBute seems an odd candidate to direct and cowrite a big-ticket horror rehash, he of such notorious stark-reality bits as In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and The Shape of Things. But really, what are these twisting, pitch-dark sex dramedies, if not tales of acute, intrahuman horror? (Throw Aaron Eckhart’s Chad `Men`, Jason Patric’s Cary `Neighbors`, or Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn `Shape` up against any three conceivable movie monsters, and then mull which you’d rather spend an evening with.) Given LaBute’s penchant and talent for making his viewers feel uncomfortable and dirty, then, you’d expect his style and the oddish, eerie tones of The Wicker Man to be a fairly complementary fit. You’d be wrong, though.
Really, all this version is is a bit less strange (out-of-place cameos by James Franco and Eckhart notwithstanding). Gone are the disorienting folk-music numbers and nude, dancing flower children (including a writhing, wall-pounding Britt Ekland). Gone is genteel, cross-dressing Christopher Lee, replaced by an able Burstyn, though she isn’t given much to do. And gone, indeed, is the primary driving tension of the first film: staunch Christianity versus neo-paganism. Cage’s Malus is a bit weirded out by Summersisle’s brand of spirituality, but nothing more, whereas the utter appallment of Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie is far more effective a device from start to scandalous finish. LaBute tries to inject a bit of his trademark battle-of-the-sexes m.o. with the “men are only good for labor and reproduction” theme, which structure is echoed (and then gratingly bludgeoned home) in that of the bee colonies on which the community depends. (And speaking of bludgeoning and battles of the sexes: Watch for gratuitous Nicolas Cage chick-punching. There’s the Neil LaBute we all know and … um, might love, if he hadn’t spent years pumping us full of weapons-grade misanthropy.)
The appeal of the first Wicker Man is that it was a horror movie that didn’t feel like one — a musical-suspense-thriller that left you peering at the screen in bird-headed wonderment when it was all over. Its quirkiness was its strength, and even then, the film is arguably just a fun curiosity. But cut off that aspect, or go only midway with it, as this latest imagining has, and all you’ve got is a mildly off-kilter Silent Hill.