Film

The Wicker Man (2006)

"Every time I turn my head," sputters Edward, "there's something that doesn't make any sense." Exactly.

The Wicker Man

Director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, LeeLee Sobieski, Molly Parker
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-09-01 (General release)
Website
Trailer

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.

4

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image