Edward Malus is a motorcycle cop in the middle of a typical day watching for speeders and serving the public. Until he pulls over a fully-packed station wagon to return a doll that he spotted dropping out a window.
He hands the doll back to the young girl in the rear seat. And she promptly throws it out again. That's when a truck runs off the road, crushing the car and setting it ablaze. Despite a desperate effort, Edward is unable to rescue the girl or her mom.
Much less has pushed better men than Edward down for the count. Replaying in his memory the moment of impact (and the sight of the trapped little girl surrounded by fire) sends him into a spiraling emotional depression.
While in this crippling funk, Edward receives an unexpected, and mysteriously unstamped letter from his former fiancée, Willow, who deserted him at the altar. She pleads for his help in finding a missing girl—who looks remarkably like the little pigtailed tyke killed in the accident. The damaged, but caring man is drawn to help and travels to the secluded Washington island of Summersisle. There he finds a reclusive farming community (with no modern technology and Amish-style clothing) where men are silent slaves and women rule as demi-goddesses. Clues point to the fact that the little girl is somewhere on the island. They also indicate that someone is in extreme danger. But who?
As Edward questions the island's residents, he discovers a book titled Rituals of the Ancients. In it he finds that the matriarchal cult on Summersisle performs animal and possibly human sacrifices each year in a blood ritual dedicated to "the great mother goddess." They believe that this "death to life" sacrifice will ensure the goddess's blessings for a better honey crop.
Sister Summersisle, the elder leader of the cult, prays (as her followers echo), "Oh goddess of the field, please accept our offering, that you will once again in the year to come bestow on us the rich and diverse fruits of thy wealth." The collective of sorts believes that its "deepest purpose is to balance the forces of dark and light."
Summersisle conveniently considers herself to be the earthly physical manifestation of the goddess, and all the other women revere her. One goes so far as to imply that she's more spirit than person, and that she inhabits the plants and trees growing all around them. It's said that the women's ancestors were the real Salem witches.
There are no sex scenes, but Willow tells Edward that Rowan is a product of their consummated relationship, years earlier. This makes him all the more protective of his newfound daughter and former fiancée. He and Willow kiss hesitantly.
Edward blanches as the community's teacher asks a classroom full of girls what man represents in his truest form. They answer in unison, "A phallic symbol, a phallic symbol." After this, Edward asks Sister Summersisle about the men's role in their society. She replies, "Men are an important part of our little community. Breeding, you know."
Edward opens a door to discover a woman sitting naked in a chair, mostly covered in bees. And one of the "sisters" asks a young man at a bar on the mainland to take her home with him with an implied sexual invitation.
Edward repeatedly imagines/remembers scenes of a speeding 18 wheeler crushing the family's car, or simply obliterating a little girl standing by herself. He also has visions of himself holding the dead girl in his arms. In an ugly moment, a man that violated the sister's rules is found dead with his eyes plucked out and his lacerated mouth sewn shut.
Once Edward begins to understand how dangerous the women are, he punches several in the face, points his gun at others and kicks one woman into a wall of glass-framed pictures that break and splinter around her. There are several symbolic visuals throughout the movie including a squirming creature in a burlap bag that appears to be dripping blood, a doll with a charred face and a deformed, one-eyed man sitting naked in bed with the covers at his waist. Young Rowan is seen tied to a stake (à la Joan of Arc).
[Spoiler Warning] Edward assumes that Rowan is to be burned to death as a human sacrifice. But we discover that Edward is the sacrifice. He discovers it too when his legs are broken by an ugly, vehement mob. We don't see it, but we hear the (over-amplified) snapping bones and his cries. He is then tied by his broken legs and pulled up into the head of a huge wicker structure filled with sacrificial animals. The towering wicker man is then ritualistically set on fire by Rowan, and Edward burns to death with frightful screams. The camera, thankfully, pulls away, but it settles on what may be an even more distressing sight: the women smiling and celebrating.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Edward has a bottle of prescription drugs always at hand and pops a pill whenever his mind betrays him and throws him into a violent vision or memory of the accident. When he first arrives at the island he drinks a tankard of mead that the locals brew. The film's concluding scene takes place in a bar.
The Wicker Man puts an exclamation point on a thought most recently reintroduced by the likes of The Ring: Just because a film escapes an R rating doesn't mean it's not disturbing. Here, it's not the fractured symbolism about bee colonies with their silent male workers that pushes things over the edge. That comes off as slipshod, almost laughable nonsense in this ploddingly paced clunker. It's not because of the less-than-believable story, a tiredly reworked version of the 1970 original, which wasn't very good to begin with. It's not even the phoned-in performances delivered by fairly respected actors.
It's the idea that watching a irrationally diseased group of Wisteria Lane rejects devote themselves to ritualistic human sacrifices should be somehow considered a good time at the movies. It's the idea that it's OK to revel in the depiction of a good and honest person being beaten down and ultimately crushed. With no remorse or consequence. And for no reason other than the scriptwriter wrote him into a corner and then decided not to send in the cavalry.
The Wicker Man leaves us staring at a pretty, but frightening face that says evil wins, get used to it. And hey, while you're at it, break out the animal costumes and enjoy yourself a little.