In Defense Of: The Wicker Man (2006)

Published on July 25th, 2013 in: Movie Reviews, Movies, Over the Gadfly's Nest, Reviews, Underground/Cult |

By Jeffery X Martin


Joyous news coming out of England . . . no, not the Royal Baby. We’ll finally be getting a definitive final cut of Robin Hardy’s classic thriller, The Wicker Man, this fall. This is the best Samhain treat fans of the Man could have ever hoped for. Restored footage, digital remastering, the whole nine yards. Hopefully, once the disc hits North American shores, the film will garner a new following. When most Americans think of The Wicker Man, their first thought is the Nicolas Cage movie. Fans of the original film bristle at this, especially because the remake was so thoroughly mocked and maligned, as if the presence of Nicolas Cage gives the entire story a bad name.

I implore you to reconsider.

At some point in his wildly erratic career, Nicolas Cage seemed to have made a conscious choice to become a B-movie actor. He is too big of a name to really descend to Lorenzo Lamas or Lou Diamond Phillips level. Cage still manages to wrangle work from major film studios. He’s not making mockbusters for The Asylum. The National Treasure series and Kick-Ass show he can still open movies. When he wants to be great, he can be. He’s an Academy Award winner for Leaving Las Vegas. But his affinity for lowbrow medium-budget genre fare has made him an easy target for Internet memes and other forms of ridicule.

When most people decide to make fun of Nic Cage, they focus on his 2006 remake of the Seventies classic, The Wicker Man. Surely you’ve seen the clips on YouTube. Here comes Cage, running down a hill in a bear suit. There’s Cage screaming, “Not the bees!” as a modified fencing helmet is forced over his head and thousands of honeybees are funneled in over his bald spot. Out of context, those clips are hilarious. Then again, lots of things are funny when taken out of context.

The Wicker Man was hailed as the worst movie of 2006.

It may be time to re-evaluate things.

It’s always a tricky thing to remake a movie, especially one as well loved as Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, sure to be found in the favorite films list of Pagans and lovers of irony across the world. It still holds up today, even with strange sequences you could only get away with in the Seventies. If, today, you had a naked Britt Ekland singing and banging on the walls while a sexually tormented Edward Woodward writhes in anguish in the next room, your movie would be laughed out of the theater. Not even Baz Luhrmann would touch that; it’s patently ridiculous. But in The Wicker Man, it still works.

No scene like that exists in Neil LaBute’s remake. The Pagan aspect of the story has been toned down considerably. The first film memorably presented a battle of ideologies, the Christian vs. the pre-Christian. It never saw itself as a battle between good and evil. The Wicker Man (2006) doesn’t either. It does change the philosophical war zone, however, to a battle of the sexes.

When Cage visits Summersisle, he is met by a population of mostly women, all ages and sizes. Some of them are obviously meant to be lesbians, although that is never explicitly stated. Honey is the main export of the island. It’s a place of beekeepers, designed to work like a colony. Ellen Burstyn as Sister Summersisle is the head of this matriarchal community, functioning as the queen bee. The women on the island roam back and forth, bringing the queen back information. The men on the island have been reduced to worker drones. Their tongues have been cut out. They may have been emasculated.

Cage’s appearance on the island, to investigate the disappearance of a little girl, seems to pose a threat to the hive, despite the background machinations in play. He is loud and obnoxious in his determination to solve the mystery. On the surface, the performance seems to be classic Cage, a little over the top and manic. However, his character is no more obnoxious than Woodward’s character, Sgt. Howie, in the original. Howie stomps about the island, decrying the obvious Pagan behavior and what his strict Catholic upbringing considers to be horribly immoral behavior. Cage’s character, Edward Malus, rails against the women for not being forthcoming with information, for being secretive and intentionally befuddling. This is a typical complaint of men against women. You can’t live with ’em, you can’t kill ’em.

It is human nature to speak ill about systems we don’t understand. Republicans don’t understand Democrats. Communists don’t understand the appeal of a free market. Star Wars fans don’t understand Star Trek fans. It is my opinion that Cage’s performance is actually quite restrained. If you’ve ever seen someone really go off, especially when they don’t have all the information, about something they perceive as threatening or dangerous, then you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Frustration is a human reaction. The situation presented to Cage is a frustrating one, trying to do his job, lost in a land of women, with no male touchstone to bounce things off of.

The Internet loves that bear suit, but what they don’t tell you is that it is warranted in the script. It is no different than Sgt. Howie donning the Punch costume and marching to the sea in Hardy’s film. He thought he was blending in with the rest of the islanders, doing his job. All told, it’s no sillier than a masquerade ball.

The bees are vital to the story, also. Bees sting. It is made obvious that Cage’s character is allergic to bee stings. The bees make the honey that the women harvest. It is a potent viable symbol that the entire island has turned against him and that things are not what he believed them to be. He didn’t think they were very good to begin with. Reminiscent of the rats hurrying towards Jonathan Pryce’s face with their teeth bared in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, it shows us a society not afraid to exploit the individual’s worst fears and use them to their own advantage.

Another viewing of The Wicker Man (2006) reveals a great adoration for the source material, with some scenes being taken directly from the original script. The salient points made are the same in both versions. A refusal to attempt to understand a culture will always lead to a misunderstanding. There are often things going on the background that you are unaware of that will affect you markedly. We all have secrets.

Secrets are the true story of The Wicker Man, in either iteration. The islanders have theirs, and the interlopers have skeletons in their closets, also. But as the fiery ending of the tale reminds us, everything that is secret will eventually be made known. The biggest secret about the Nicolas Cage version of The Wicker Man is that it is good. Despite what the purists and the pundits would have you believe, it is worth both a watch and a rewatch. While Hardy’s 1971 classic is clearly the superior of the two, the remake provides a respectable and interesting reconfiguration, one that does not deserve the pariah dog reputation it has acquired over the years.

The Wicker Man: The Final Cut will be released in UK theaters in September via StudioCanal, with a DVD release to follow.

One Response to “In Defense Of: The Wicker Man (2006)”

  1. Tim Murr:
    July 25th, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    I haven’t watched it yet, but fully intend to! I love Cage, he’s awesome. I’m glad you wrote this. Maybe the haters will give it another go.

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