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Old Nick

'The Wicker Man': Nicolas Cage smolders in a remake of the 1973 shocker, directed and written by Neil LaBute (!)

By Richard von Busack

AFTER A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, highway patrolman Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) receives an elegantly calligraphed message from Willow (Kate Beahan), the fiancee who disappeared from his life many years before. Willow writes from the remote, privately owned island of Summersisle in Puget Sound. Her daughter, Rowan, is missing, and she begs Edward to come. When he arrives, he finds a hostile matriarchal commune refusing to help him in his search. And the half-coherent Willow can't provide any clues or solid evidence. Gradually, he begins to suspect that the locals are born-again pagans.

Many of director/writer Neil LaBute's social dramas are almost horror movies—note the half-psychopathic way the men talk about women in Your Friends and Neighbors and The Shape of Things—so he is well set up to translate the 1973 original and to preserve one of the most ghastly punch lines in 1970s horror cinema.

But why did the remake have to be set in the present? By coincidence, this same problem also faces Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. The expense of returning London to its '70s filth must surely exceed what it would cost to take The Wicker Man back a few decades—back to the era of mad communes. A vintage setting would have increased the remoteness of Summersisle. Primitive telecommunications are a godsend to a thriller; cell phones not only spoil movie watching in theaters, they are also spoiling suspense plots. Plus, in the 1970s, Puget Sound probably had a few separatist womyn's colonies floating around; in those days, a man's resentment of them would have been keen and bitter. (Is it clear that The Wicker Man is not a movie you'd want to send a Wiccan gathering to see?)

Cage's cool weariness—he's not really taking part in a battle of the sexes—makes him seem like an irate detective-movie cop when the action starts. We can't get a bead on him, though. When we hear him talk, Malus seems neither from a small town or the city. Dialogue isn't the film's strong suit, anyway. The talk is stiff and—given LaBute's latest ventures, this is no surprise—stagey. Still, Cage's vulnerability gives us someone to care about, when he's caught in the horror-movie machinery.

Beahan ought to be half-mad but just seems discombobulated. Otherwise, the casting is superior. Frances Conroy plays the island's doctor, who has a dismaying collection of jarred fetuses ("pickled punks" in carny slang). Molly Parker shows up as a sinister teacher. Leelee Sobieski, of the insolent blue-glass eyes, plays a servant woman. She looks far taller than she did before she took a long break from acting to go to college. LaBute poses her with a hatchet over her shoulder, making the men in the audience fear for their testicles. In the Christopher Lee role, Ellen Burstyn plays Sister Summersisle, the lady of the manor, draped in kaftans and attended in bed with perfectly ironed satins. The overproduced look of The Wicker Man must have been a strategy to make the islanders look wealthy and smugly powerful: people whose faith is working out for them. But the final processional in the film is like something out of the Renaissance Faire, with expensive Venetian-style carnival masks. They're most picturesque when they ought to be most barbarous.

Movie Times The Wicker Man (PG-13; 97 min.), directed by Neil LaBute, written by LaBute and Anthony Shaffer, photographed by Paul Sarossy and starring Nicolas Cage and Ellen Burstyn, plays valleywide.

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