To celebrate TIFF’s ongoing Bangkok Dangerous: The Cinema Of Nicolas Cage series, Alan Jones has resurrected his retrospective of the actor’s work entitled The Nic Cage Project. In this edition, Jones takes a look at Neil LaBute’s disturbing and inexplicable remake of The Wicker Man – playing tonight at the Lightbox.
I’ve got a couple of things to say about The Wicker Man, one of the most unfairly reviled movies of the last decade. A) How “unintentional” do you really think some of the more hilarious scenes in this movie are? Do you really think Nic Cage was wearing a bear suit on set, taking swings at Kathy Bates, and no one was like “this is too much”? Well, if Cage was behaving super seriously, I could see everyone else shutting up and letting it happen, because they trust in Cage. There’s no fault in that.
The film starts with the Cage as a highway cop, picking up a doll thrown from the window of a passing car. He then pulls the car over and gives the doll back to the little girls in the back seat. She throws it again. He walks across the road to pick it up. In the meantime, a semi-truck runs over the stopped car. Cage tries to save the little girl, but it is unsuccessful and she burns to death.
This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. I mean, there’s a bunch of flashbacks to the event whenever Cage gets stressed out, and then he takes drugs to cope, and there’s a suggestion that his narration may not be reliable, perhaps because the trauma from this event has caused him to hallucinate, but in terms of actual narrative, this event his very little relevance. Following this event, the Cage gets an meticulously hand-written letter from his former fiancée, asking him to come to her weird traditionalist community (think Amish, but feminist) in Puget Sound and help search for her missing daughter, whom he didn’t know she had. Cage, following his masculine tendency to be the hero, does so, despite being given several reasons not to.
When Cage gets to the island, he becomes the unwanted guest of a matriarchal community of beekeepers. Every woman refers to the others as sisters, and the men don’t say much at all. He starts searching for the missing girl and it seems everyone is either lying to him about the existence of the girl or intentionally misleading him. The odd thing about the screenplay is that almost all of the revealed plot points lead to squat in the end. Many hacky Hollywood movies have twists, but few are three quarters filled with red herrings. Thus, what we as viewers are left with is the image of Nic Cage attempting to fulfill his role as the masculine hero, recruited by the needy feminine victim. Except what we’re really seeing is a masculine Nic Cage grow uncomfortable in world where his male authority is not pre-assumed, and where his role as a male saviour to a female victim is constantly under question. In all sincerity, I cannot think of another Hollywood movie in the last ten years which challenges gender roles with the same originality as The Wicker Man.
Throughout the film, Nic Cage grows more and more insecure with his ability to, erm, perform. He claims he has authority as a law enforcement officer, but he’s a California officer in Washington. He attempts to intimidate and harass the female residents of the island, but he is ignored. The other men on the island make no attempt to back him up. The heavily YouTubed clips of Nic Cage screaming “How’d it get burned! How’d it get burned!” (among other things) are really a cathartic way for Cage to deal with the emasculation of being on this island. Essentially, the film is one long castration, in which Cage attempts to use his authoritative phallus, but it is removed by a community which does not ascribe to the authority of the phallus. This point is emphasized when Cage barges in on a female populated schoolroom. The teacher, Sister Rose (Molly Parker), asks the class what “man represents” and the response of the children is (hilariously) “Phallic symbol. Phallic symbol.” And you thought it was just a shitty horror movie. You fool.
There’s really no way of knowing what Neil LaBute’s intentions were with this film. Commercial necessity may have had a large or small effect on the final film. LaBute’s previous film, The Shape of Things deals with the same themes; themes regarding the emasculation of men by strong female figures. Unfortunately, as it comes across in the film, it resembles the paranoia of masculine insecurity. The idea that everything the woman Nic Cage loved did to him is part of one incredibly elaborate prank meant to humiliate him in the most painful way possible – not necessarily by killing him, but by letting him know that every other women is in on the joke. In fact, in this film, they’re all (literally) part of a secret society, and everything his fiancée said to him from the first moment they met was part of this plan. Furthermore, wielding one’s phallus won’t help. Masculine authority is of no help in the midst of castration. In this way, Cage’s performance is fantastic. He turns into a flailing, pathetic, but compulsively watchable figure – a figure that is probably relatable to all the men who have ever really related to Weezer’s Pinkerton (i.e. insecure men who have yet to realize how fucked up Rivers Cuomo’s worldview is).
So, the film may still be a tad misogynist, but at least it’s not dominant ideology misogyny, where the man saves the day in the end, and then gets to bone the women as a reward. It’s a problematized misogyny that hints at something darker; maybe a bit of self-loathing, maybe a self-awareness on the part of formerly Mormon director Neil LaBute. So you may dispute that The Wicker Man is good film. That is your perogative, but please don’t dispute that for all its flaws, it is at least an interesting film.
And yeah, the opening credits are in papyrus font. Deal with it.