California traffic cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) is out of his depth. That much is clear from the first frames of Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man. Standing in a diner as his buddy (Michael Wiseman) finishes his coffee and cigarette, Edward seems lost in thought. “Honey,” calls the waitress, “Your salad’s up.” And so Edward, smiling vacantly, looks up from the self-help book he’s been checking, Everybody’s Okay.
And so you know he’s not.
There are a lot of reasons not to like The Wicker Man: it’s ponderous, preposterous, and overtly, even comically, misogynist at least in its plot outline and the cartoonish violence rendered against deserving women characters. But Nick Cage is most emphatically not one of these reasons. He’s always been a grand choice to play in-over-his-headness, twitchy and odd and desperately wanting. Think of Peggy Sue or Vampire’s Kiss: the man has a special gift for performing desire tinged with dimness, his face fairly lit up with an earnest, slightly goofy and strangely sympathetic hope that he’ll be okay even though you know he never will.
Edward has this hope in spades, and the movie never even thinks about giving him a chance. As everyone who cares knows, Robin Hardy’s 1973 original established the grim framework, wherein a nice enough fellow pays a terrible cost for his niceness. And while Edward is not quite so judgmental as the strictly religious Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), he does share with his predecessor an inclination to investigate and an awful end, in this case visited on him by a simple-seeming community of bee raisers. Edward doesn’t have a clue, and you know everything from the start, and so most of the movie is a not very interesting exercise in anticipation: you wait for Edward to die, gruesomely.
And yet, what’s most striking about Edward is his niceness, his genuine, if slightly weird, sweetness. Following his introduction in the diner, he heads off on his motorcycle, ending up in a manifestly nightmarish situation. A beautiful blond child tosses her doll out the car window, he retrieves it. As he’s stooping to pick up the toy, a truck mashes the car where the child and her beautiful blond mom are sitting, and Edward is saddled with a trauma that will haunt him repeatedly and incessantly, for the rest of the film: he keeps seeing the little girl slammed by a truck, and so he takes pills, his face sweaty and his eyes weary.
This is what The Wicker Man does well: it looks at Cage’s face, a lot, often with sharp shadows etching his cheekbones. These shots remind you of why you like him, why you used to look forward to Cage movies. It helps that Cage is in his offbeat observer mode, too. Edward emerges from his depression when he receives a letter from his runaway fiancée Willow (Kate Beahan), who says she now lives on an island called Summersisle and needs help locating her disappeared daughter Rowan (Erika-Shaye Gair). Because he’s a cop who “wants to help people,” Edward goes.
The decision is, in a word, ridiculous. His cop buddy advises against it, Edward knows better, but he goes anyway. So you give up on the plot and focus on Cage’s face. Simultaneously full of loss, longing, and the sort of disbelief you’d be feeling under such circumstances, this face — gaunt and vivid — almost makes The Wicker Man bearable.
Almost. When Edward finds Willow, so ethereal and sensual at the same time, so obviously bait, he’s moved to trust her and so, to distrust all the other women on Summerisle. They wear the sorts of dresses that signal evil primitivism in the movies, their hair long and braided and their skin pale. When he walks inside the local hotel/café, he’s appropriately mystified by the attitudes and outfits. “Are you the bar maiden here, or whatever you call it?” he asks the daunting Sister Beech (Diane Delano, also known as the dead-meat bus driver in Jeepers Creepers II). She’s not amused by his humor, much less by his deliberate murder of a bee on her bar-top. As Edward is allergic to the base of the local economy, he’s got yet another count against him.
Repeatedly, Edward confronts out-of-time types who fix him with evil eyes or, in the case of Sister Honey (Leelee Sobieski) look sad and ask for his help. Either way, Edward succumbs, equally willing to accept butchy challenges or rescue damsels. Deducing that the missing child has been kidnapped and will be sacrificed at some upcoming fertility ritual (an effort to recover from last year’s reportedly terrible harvest), Edward makes a series of predictable choices, bicycling heroically from site to site in search of clues. A run-in with schoolteacher Sister Rose (Molly Parker) leaves him frustrated and flustered: she and her scary girl students insist that Rowan never existed, while he gazes on an empty desk and finds her name crossed out in the class roll. “Every time I turn my head,” he sputters to the decidedly unforthcoming Willow, “there’s something that doesn’t make any sense.” Exactly.
This lack of sense is pictured as Edward’s subjective disorder made external. Even as the women he meets are secretive and dismissive (and their men are docile, silent laborers), Edward tries to muster his best cop face, declaring his legal authority (“I’m from California,” he says more than once, as if this means something here, beyond the fact that he has no jurisdiction) and asserting his masculine prerogatives. When told that everything is “fine,” he starts talking loudly: “It is anything but fine when a person is lost,” he says, adopting the air of one who knows. “Especially a child.”
Alas, his desire to “help” makes him vulnerable. Edward tries to engage in face-to-face showdowns in order to wrestle the mystery out of the air and into some material form. He goes full-on at scary “spiritual leader” Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), but he’s plainly outmatched; she meets with him in a garden buzzing with bees, and he swats at these louder and louder nuisances as he walks with Sister Summersisle. She essentially informs him that he’s a goner though he can’t grasp it.
Cast as a sort of Last Girl in his own horror movie, Edward is pitted against a flock of sinister women. This is the 2006 Wicker Man‘s primary change from the 1973 film, the simultaneous reduction and expansion of the clash between old and new, agrarian and urban, to one designated by gender. Cage’s capacity to play across conventional gender inflections complicates the dynamic, vaguely, but doesn’t quite keep it from tedium. With a softness that is both emotional (the haunted face) and physical (the allergy), Edward is afraid and increasingly chaotic in his affect and appearance. And so he’s stuck, an unusual man forced to be usual (his last ditch karate-chopping against Leelee Sobieski is perversely comic), not challenging expectations, but reinflicting them.