Los Angeles Times

'The Wicker Man'

Special to The Times

It probably seemed like a good idea on paper. Nicolas Cage, turned on to the '70s British cult item "The Wicker Man," produces and stars in a remake and dedicates the new film to the friend who introduced him to the original, the late Johnny Ramone.

The original film — in which an unwavering, deeply religious police officer searches for a missing little girl on a remote island where he becomes ensnared by a free-love-ish pagan cult — was a minimalist, chilling examination of strained beliefs, the conflagration of blinkers-on conviction and groovy open-mindedness. Part mystery, part musical and all-the-way weird, the original is a singular work of strange, unnerving power.

Writer and director Neil LaBute is a theoretically inspired choice for the remake. His films, from his debut, "In the Company of Men," to his most recent, "The Shape of Things," are dissections of power dynamics, the mind games by which people control and manipulate one another.

As LaBute has a particular appetite for the war of the sexes, in his adaptation he turns the island into some sort of matriarchal commune, so that Christopher Lee's character, Lord Summerisle, from the original has become Ellen Burstyn's Sister Summersisle in the new version. He keeps the main thread of the storyline and relocates the action from Scotland to Washington state. All notionally well and good.

The film one might expect from LaBute, the chilly, cerebral mediation on power plays and gender roles, is sort of hiding in the bushes in his version of "The Wicker Man." LaBute's strength has always been in the power of his dialogue, and the structural demands of a more conventional horror film repeatedly trip him up.

As if to appease development executives and nitpicking fanboys, Cage is constantly checking his cellphone, which gets no reception. To ratchet up the suspense and motivation, Cage is also given an emotional trauma to overcome, a physical ailment to make him vulnerable and a personal connection to make him more attached. Part of what made the original so spooky in the first place was how spare it was, leeched of all the trappings LaBute chooses to stuff into his version.

The remake is surprisingly faithful to the conclusion of the original, the finale being that film's most famous sequence. It's all there — the animal masks, the burning effigy, the cruel revelations — ultimately undercut by a ridiculously unnecessary "six months later" coda tacked on at the end, a scene with brief, unexpected appearances by James Franco and Jason Ritter. (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart makes a cameo at the beginning of the film.)

At one point Cage's character has a double-scare dream-within-a-dream, and his own frustration at his predicament perfectly (and comically) mirrors that of the audience, who are asked to wait patiently for terrors that never come and a creepiness that doesn't quite settle in. In the end, LaBute's remake is an interesting idea that never transforms into a particularly satisfying movie.

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