Friday, October 10, 2008

Great Moments in Terrible Filmmaking: The Wicker Man

Relatively few people these days have seen the creepy original production of The Wicker Man, a 1973 British movie in which a puritanical policeman travels to an isolated English island to search for a missing girl. The islanders, pagans who make their livings growing fruit, claim the girl never existed. Angered by the rituals and open sexuality he sees on the island, Christopher Woodward stomps about the town, doggedly pursuing the girl, convinced she's about to be sacrificed to pagan gods in order to ensure a good harvest.

It works because the community feels so alien, the sexuality is at once enticing and repulsive, and Woodward is at once off-putting (with his condemnation of the islanders) and sympathetic (his concern for the girl is genuine and he seems purposely harassed by the islanders). And the great ending, one of the great twists of all time, is so shocking and so horrifying that you can't not have the heebie-jeebies after it's done (video of the original ending here.

In remaking the cult classic for American audiences, Neil LaBute takes out all the conflict between Christianity and Paganism, all the sex, and all the good acting and replace them with rampant misogynist. What was he left with? Perhaps the worst movie of the past five years, an island, and a big wicker man. In LaBute's version, a traumatized California motorcycle cop, played by Nic Cage, goes to a small Oregon island (a little outside his jurisdiction) to find a girl who may be his daughter. There, he finds a coven of women who have established a pagan matriarchy, run by Sister Summerisle. The men are timid and silent, presumably henpecked away to nothingness, while the women run roughshod over them.

In his quest, Cage's cop bears little resemblance to Woodward's original. For one thing, he isn't religious. Instead, he's a lout and a boor who threatens the women and children with arrest, calling a classroom of 10 year olds a bunch of little liars. And he's violent, repeatedly beating the local women with no warning and no discernible purpose. But on LaBute's island, the women are simply getting what they deserve, as a bunch of man-hating, manipulative shrews. Cage is somehow supposed to be heroic as he drop-kicks Leelee Sobieski into a wall, taking out men's collective frustration for those who aren't man enough to hit their own wives, girlfriends, sisters, etc who emasculate them. Indeed, Cage's cop is probably not supposed to be a good guy in the classic sense, but his nemeses are so evil as to make him seem so much the better.

In the end, what makes this movie terrible isn't the terrible acting and non-sensical plot; those are simply what make the film stupid and ripe for parody. The plot holes are numerous: Why does Cage feel like only he can go out to this island, and refuses to include other law enforcement? Why does he continue to insist he has the right to arrest people outside of his jurisdiction? How did he not see those bee hives? And Cage is a one-man lollapalooza of terrible acting. For someone who has made memorable turns in truly good (or at least enjoyable) movies (Lord of War, Matchstick Men, Adaptation, Bringing Out the Dead, Face/Off, Con Air, The Rock), how has this guy been at the center of so many terrible films (an endless list that this movie should rocket to the top of). See the clips at the end for an example of just how bad Cage gets in this role.

But it's really the warped view of masculinity that makes the newest version of The Wicker Man so unbearable to watch. It's a modern Birth of a Nation, with women replacing African Americans. What happens when women finally are put in charge? The film argues they destroy any and all masculinity that threatens their dominance. It's a hateful and sad film, though at the same time stupid and not worth your time. So why is The Common Man writing about it? Why is he wasting your time? Frankly, he feels the need to justify the hour and twenty minutes of his life he'll never get back, and this helps him rationalize it. Where is Mystery Science Theater 3000 when you need it?

P.S. For those of you who are not faint of heart, The Common Man is including the "best" scenes from the film. Enjoy:

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