The Wicker Man (Neil LaBute, 2006)
It's easy to review a remake by comparing it to the original film from which it was based. It's even easier when the original film is an excellent one that doesn't really call for improvements or updates. Such is the case with Neil LaBute's update of Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973), a film that gained much cult status because of its perfectly atmospheric portrayal of pagan rituals in contemporary times. To those far too busy to read on, here's my verdict: LaBute's version is a sorry thing to behold --- a tiring, boring, annoying mess that is so insignificant compared to the original.
The plot is pretty much left unchanged except for a few additions and a few modifications. Summerisle is turned into Summer's Isle, an Ommish isle in Washington State as compared to Summerisle, a real island off the coast of the British Isles. Instead of apples and other fruits, the island's greatest import is honey, gathered from bees. Of course, the bees are supposed to represent the biggest modification in the film. Like the bee colonies, Summer's Isle is a matriarchal society headed by Sister Summer's Isle (Ellen Burstyn) and other similarly named females, while males are either killed at birth or turned into mindless silent drones.
Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) is a police officer who gets a letter from an ex-girlfriend (Kate Beahan) asking for help to find her missing child. Malus travels to the island and is entreated with suspicion and aggression by the isle's citizens. He researches and investigates on the missing child, learning of the isle's cultural roots and its weird traditions involving witchly sacrifices and other bizarre stuff.
The biggest mistake LaBute made is with the modification in the character of the police officer. Hardy's Sergeant Howie is a self-righteous snob and the fact that he finds himself trapped in the middle of what he pertains as uncivility is in itself, claustrophobic. To add terror to the phobia, the citizens of Summerisle treat him with curious welcome which is at once both deceitful yet attractive. LaBute's Malus is a boring man. He's driving force isn't his self-righteousness or the fact that he's out on a mission in the name of the queen (or in his case, Dubya) or everything moral. His driving force is the product of cliche: an unresolved past. Seriously, it doesn't add anything to Malus' investigations and every time he whines about what could have been, or how perfect a couple he and his ex-girlfriend are, it's more or less laughable while everything else is dragging and uncompelling.
Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man is an atmospheric triumph. The songs, the music, the fantastical rituals engage the viewers to an alien world that seems all too real, all too believable. Lord Summerisle, as played by Christopher Lee, is a modern man who has a tinge of insanity, but all in all, quite logical and in that sense, very frightful. In LaBute's version, atmosphere is meant as fake-looking sets, obviously weird citizenry, and confusing and jarring dream sequences. While Ellen Burstyn is a terrific actress, she misunderstands her role. I miss Lee's earthiness, and his self-confident stance as compared to Burstyn's cynical and villainous gnarl. LaBute is the biggest sinner in this effort. His transformations to what seems to be perfect is the product of a self-imposed auteurist impulse. It just doesn't work. Accomplice to LaBute's trespasses is Cage who looks like he has to be like his Award-winning character in Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995) in all the films he'll ever make.