The Wicker Man

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Not having seen the 1973 British cult classic “The Wicker Man,” I cannot say whether the 2006 remake is faithful. Did the original include a scene in which the leading man puts on a bear costume in an effort to infiltrate cultists? Did that leading man also yell, “Killing me won’t bring back your G–d— honey!”?

I suspect not. I suspect it takes a Nicolas Cage (or a Charlton Heston or a William Shatner) to holler that kind of nonsense without a trace of self-consciousness. You need a ham of the highest order to make this malarkey funny, which is what “The Wicker Man” remake ultimately is.

Adapted and directed by once-beloved indie misanthrope Neil LaBute, our story is about Edward Malus (Cage), a California cop who’s on leave after witnessing a horrific traffic accident that turns out to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. While recovering, he gets a letter from his ex-fiancee, Willow (Kate Beahan), pleading for his help in finding her missing daughter.

Willow and the girl, Rowan, live on a privately owned island off the coast of Washington called Summersisle, so Edward hops a plane and a ferry and another plane and shows up to investigate. The island’s inhabitants are unwelcoming of strangers, nearly Amish in their lifestyle, and almost exclusively female. The few men visible to the naked eye remain silent and perform menial tasks. Edward is puzzled by what he sees and frustrated by the community’s lack of regard for his status as a law-enforcement officer. Also, the Summersisle residents claim, at various times, that Rowan never existed and that she existed but died.

Willow herself is oddly uncooperative for someone who wants her daughter back, but Edward can chalk that up to the island’s general policy of vague answers and obfuscation of evidence. The group is governed by Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), a queen-like figure in flowing robes and benevolent smiles who tells Edward of the island’s two major festivals: one for the harvest and one for fertility. The harvest pertains to the island’s numerous beehives (honey is the community’s chief export), and the fertility is evident in the many pregnant women one sees wandering around.

So OK, we’ve got some kind of peaceful cult going on here, but what about the missing girl? Edward finds few answers. It doesn’t help that he spends many of his spare hours having hallucinations, nor that he is — wait for it — wait for it — allergic to bees.

It is possible to make genuinely creepy movies about strange pagan societies, but “The Wicker Man” is not one. The climactic sequence involving the group’s annual “celebration of death and rebirth,” in which all the island’s residents put on animal masks and/or costumes, is silly, not eerie, Cage’s appearance in a bear outfit certainly does not help matters.

The one excellent performance is by Ellen Burstyn, still radiant at 73 and skillful enough as an actress to recite her cheesy, wannabe-spooky dialogue in a way that sounds natural. Her every word sparkles, even when her face is painted like Braveheart. (Why is her face painted like Braveheart?!)

Since the movie itself is a laughable wreck (albeit a well-photographed one), I’m curious to examine what the symbolism is all about. LaBute was a Mormon until a few years ago, when he renounced his membership before the church could renounce it for him. LaBute’s remake of the “The Wicker Man” — but not the original — centers around bees, both literally and (in the island’s societal structure) figuratively, and the beehive has long been a part of Utah’s and Mormonism’s symbology. Consider also the film’s secretive and strict religious society, which could easily be seen as representing LaBute’s view of his former church. LaBute’s films have always addressed his issues with women. Is he going to start working out his issues with Mormonism, too?

D+ (1 hr., 42 min.; PG-13, scattered profanity including one F-word, some moderate violence.)

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