Nic Cage shines again in "The Wicker Man"

by JD Warnock on September 7, 2006

in Print Reviews

Neil LaBute is the director responsible for dark themed movies like “Nurse Betty” and “Your Friends and Neighbors.” His latest effort “The Wicker Man,” is a remake of the 1974 horror film of the same name. LaBute’s up-close-and-personal style has made the new film an articulate psychological thriller that looks and feels contemporary, even while it references the classic look of the great Hitchcock-inspired thrillers (when movies went from black and white to Technicolor).

The way LaBute has chosen to frame and stylize many of the shots in “The Wicker Man” harken back to the time when Technicolor classics like “North By Northwest” were making their debut. This, needless to say, is no Hitchcock film, but it does a good job keeping the pace and story interesting.

The story deals with an isolated community and supernatural subject matter, but unlike “The Skeleton Key,” theKate Hudson voodoo picture from last year which had a similar vibe, “The Wicker Man” doesn’t fall apart or wuss out in the end. It does however commit a cardinal sin– tacking on a useless last-second cameo by a Hollywood up-and-comer. The studios love star power, but it serves no purpose except to suck the wind out of the climax of the film. This is the precise moment when the otherwise successful movie turns into a really good episode of “Charmed.” That said, the film wasn’t slow and lifeless like the aforementioned “The Skeleton Key.” Nic Cage alone makes sure that doesn’t happen.

Although the performance isn’t weird and wacky, it reminds me of Cage’s early work in films like “Vampire’s Kiss” or “Moonstruck.” There is an edge to the character and an element that has been missing lately from his work – unpredictability. Cage is on a roll lately, with me anyway. His acting in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” and now here stand out as his best work in years.

Fans of the “The X-Files” will appreciate the structure and substance of “The Wicker Man.” As with the “Files,” not only does this kind of spooky storyline require a massive amount of suspended disbelief, but after you leave the theater and get some time to think it over, it becomes more obvious how flimsy and tenuously balanced the plot is. The question then becomes this: Is there enough left to love?  As is almost always the case with the adventures of Mulder and Scully, thinking too hard about the story’s little glitches will only zap the fun.

The film’s conclusion does go a bit “Xena: Warrior Princess.” I’m not sure it would have been possible to dial that down some, but it may have helped the story to not get quite as goofy in the third act. And as in M. Night Shyamalyan’s “The Village,” the costumes and customs of the fictitious tribe involved are always on the verge of going all re-enactment. The use of recognizable actors in smaller roles – Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”) and Leelee Sobieski (“Eyes Wide Shut”) instead of unknowns also makes it harder for the audience to believe this world exists and is authentic.

With a few minor exceptions (which will be the silver bullet for some and no big deal to the more fantastically minded), “The Wicker Man” isn’t half bad. Considering how rarely we’ve seen competent thrillers in the last few years, I will gladly put “The Wicker Man” up as one of the better examples of recent psychological suspense pictures. It is a well-directed, highly stylized, and well-put-together mystery. Of course, you might not know it from the trailers, which appear to be advertising a horror film. Sorry to disappoint you kiddies- no beasts, monsters or demons here – just a bit of good old-fashioned storytelling and camera tricks. 

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