The Wicker Man (2006)

Respect my authoritaay!
Neil LaBute
Nicholas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Behan, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Leelee Sobieski
The Setup: 
Guy goes to island ruled by women in order to find missing girl. Bad things happen.

I never really understand why some movies draw the strong negative reaction they do. I mean, maybe I have absolutely no taste, but it seems like some movies get piled on as being the absolute worst thing ever, and when you see them it’s impossible to tell why they’re any worse than anything else out there. I think that it either has to do with some biographical fact about the director or star [in this case LaBute’s supposed misogyny], but for the most part I think it’s just a way we have of telling ourselves that there is a spectrum of quality in the junk coming out nowadays. Some of them are almost arbitrarily held up as great revelations, and some of them are equally arbitrarily held up as the worst of unwatchable garbage. Kind of ironic that this movie may be one of the latter, when you consider that the movie itself is about a sacrifice made to ensure the smooth running of a system.

Before the movie I had to endure one of those “no smoking / no talking” things that also doubles as an infuriating ad for Open Season, which puts me in a bad mood even before the movie begins. However my mood was soon brightened by a quick glimpse of Aaron Eckhart as a trucker with a mustache in the first shot of the film [Does he NOT KNOW that we were meant to make sensuous love?]. Then we see Nicholas Cage as a motorcycle cop in California, handing out a bunch of tickets. He sees a doll [blond with pigtails in a red sweater] fall out of a car window, and pulls the car over to return it to the mother and daughter, a blond girl with pigtails in a red sweater. Turn out the girl actually threw the doll out, and does so again, and when Cage goes to get it, a truck hit the car and sets it afire. He tries to reach the girl [who just sits staring at him], and is thrown from the car in an explosion.

Some time later he is a pill-popping wreck at home, and is visited by a blonde cop who delivers a letter that came with no postage. It is from his ex-girlfriend, who is worried that her daughter is missing, and she fears the worst. The picture of the daughter shows her as a blond girl with pigtails in a red sweater. She asks him to come to the island and look for her. This is SummersIsle, a privately-owned island that exports honey, but not much else is known about it. We get a little of the classic LaBute in a fellow cop of Cage’s saying something along the lines of “you mean this bitch walked out on you and now she wants you to help her find some other guys’ kid?” Anyway, of course Cage goes. Oh, we also find out that no one ever found the bodies of the girl and her mother [in the car], and the car was unregistered.

So Cage, whose name is Edward Malus [pronounced male-us], goes to the island. Malus, by the way, is allergic to bees, and ‘Malus’ is also the name of a species of apple tree that is self-sterile, that is, they require insects [primarily bees] for pollination and reproduction. Malus announces to the first people he sees “I’m a cop,” and is met with “what does that mean?” He says that he represents the California law and they say “this isn’t California, you have no jurisdiction here.” You will also note that he wears his gun quite close to his crotch throughout. He bangs on the counter in the dining room and announces to everyone present that he is a cop and will be asking them all questions. No one acknowledges knowing Rowan, the girl he’s looking for, except the woman who called him to the island, and she answers most of his questions with elliptical answers or blank stares.

He stops up at the school to ask a few questions. The teacher, unaware of his presence, asks the students “what do men represent in their purest form?” and the students answer “phallic symbol.” There is a painting of an egg surrounded by a snake on the door. Malus is repeatedly told that the island is presided over by Sister SummersIsle, who is presented as embodying the island itself. He soon meets SummersIsle herself, who tells him that her ancestors were pioneers who originally settled in Salem, but objected to that society’s “suppression of the feminine,” and migrated west to found the current island. By now we have become more than aware that the island is a matriarchal society, where there women interact with each other and the men provide heavy labor and never speak.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that throughout all this interesting stuff there has been a lot of tepid suspense sequences and jump scares, a lot of fairly dull investigation, with Malus growing more and more belligerent and flailing, and a LOT of pointless dream sequences, all of them focusing on the accident at the beginning of the film. I could also do with the near-constant whispering voices mixed into the soundtrack.

Malus comes to believe that Rowan is still alive, and being held in order to be burnt alive at the “festival of death and rebirth,” which the whole island is gearing up for. He finds her sweater in a flooded crypt [he also finds a Christ statue there], and finds a burnt doll that belonged to her [exactly like the doll at the beginning]. The festival is beginning, its participants in animal costumes, so Malus dons a bear suit and joins the procession. Prior to this he has punched the innkeeper unconscious and been attacked by, and beat the shit out of, Leelee Sobieski.

At the end of the procession he sees Rowan! He ‘rescues’ her, but she breaks away from him and runs to her mother. By the way, now that we’re in the spoilers section, I can tell you that Rowan turns out to be Malus’ daughter. Then it’s all revealed: Malus is to be the sacrifice, and everything that has happened so far has been part of the plot to draw him to the island [of his own free will] for this purpose. They put him in the head of this giant man made out of wicker, and his daughter sets it on fire. Malus burns alive. This is followed by a short ‘six months later’ sequence in which Malus two women from the island identify two more victims for upcoming sacrifices.

I should warn you, that although the official spoilers have ended, the following paragraphs do contain strong hints which are necessary to discuss the film. Beware!

Here’s my take: Malus is the only major man in the film, and as is said in the film, what do men represent in their purest form? Phallic symbol. He is very traditionally male in being aggressive, rigid, and shoving himself into people’s lives and spaces without much consideration. He is aggressive in asserting his power [“I’m a police officer!”] every chance he gets, and a lot of his symbols of power and potency reside between his legs [his gun, his motorcycle]. He insists on helping people [returning the doll, looking for Rowan], but he aggressively insists on doing it in a way based on his supposed authority and expertise.

The thing is, his authority means nothing in that place, and his tools of power do not work [his cell phone is dead, his motorcycle is gone, his gun’s bullets have been taken]. His many assertions that he is a police officer do not return the respect or reverence that he expects. And he is unable to change or adapt, he just keeps pushing harder and harder with his phallic assertion. Meanwhile, this island is ruled by women whose ancestors were escaping a society in which “femininity was suppressed” and women were burned alive, and they have created a society in which masculinity is suppressed and…. Does it necessarily go further than this? Not really, but it’s an idea, and thus not as mindlessly stupid as people are making this movie out to be.

I have also never bought into the assertion that LaBute is misogynist. I think in our current environment, anything that is in any way critical of women is labeled misogynist, and I think that when people DON’T KNOW what a movie is saying, but know it has something to do with gender politics, a good, superficial guess is that it’s misogynist. LaBute’s project seems to be to look at the hatred involved in current relations between the sexes, in large part brought on by our patriarchal system. The men in In the Company of Men were certainly misogynist, but the point of view of the movie clearly wasn’t. One character in The Shape of Things is certainly not the greatest representative of womankind, but the point was at least in part about the man’s willingness to do whatever she says because of his meager sense of self. And that’s the other thing—in most cases, the movie isn’t really about women at all, but about men and the ways they react to women. This movie uses the reversal of a matriarchal system in order to show how Malus cannot let go of his traditional trappings of male power, even when they are utterly ineffective.

None of which is to say that the movie doesn’t have problems. It’s pacing is fatally slack, and in retrospect a lot of the suspense measures serve merely to pad out the running time. But a lot of the things singled out as being laughably ridiculous work within the context of the movie. For example, reviews have portrayed Malus as senselessly putting on a bear suit and flailing around uselessly, punching women while screaming “Bitches!” Well, he puts on the bear suit in order to blend in with all the other people in costume, which makes perfect sense. He does punch women, but this is at the end when he is at the end of his rope, and can be seen as further evidence of his continuing to rely on traditionally male expressions of power that no longer work. He screams “bitches” at the final moments, when a mob of women has immobilized him and is taking him off toward a grim fate, so a little expression of anger toward them might be considered justified. When you consider all of the ways in which the word “bitch” is casually tossed off in many of the other movies out there, it’s a little perplexing why it should be called out so critically here.

But looking back, the most glaringly strange thing is the car accident at the beginning. I guess we’re supposed to understand that the women were trying to lure him even back then, which seems awfully elaborate, and a bit odd [and quite a gamble] that part of their plan would hinge on his becoming a mental wreck. It functions better as something that didn’t actually happen, but is a vision or dream or something. But if you consider, it’s a mini-version of the movie right there: he is lured into trying to help two women by returning a little blonde girl in a red sweater [the doll], and is almost destroyed by fire.

So ultimately not the world’s greatest movie, but it’s strange and there’s a lot of intelligence behind it, and that counts for more with me than a less provocative movie that runs smoothly but has no ideas. And as for this remake being “unnecessary,” I’m sorry, can anyone out there name a single remake that IS necessary?

Should you watch it: 

Of more interest to people who have seen the original and want to compare. For others, it won’t be the worst movie you’ve ever seen.