Logline: Two Born Again musical missionaries are invited to turn “the lost people of Scotland” toward Jesus. What they discover when they arrive is that those kilt-rocking rural Scots practice their own brutal, ancient religion, and would love the two songbirds to be the centerpieces of their May Day festivities.
Robin Hardy directed the highly-regarded Pagan horror musical The Wicker Man in 1973, the generally-ignored (but fairly good!) serial killer drama The Fantasist in 1986, and then vanished for twenty-five years, apparently unable or uninterested in directing another feature—a fact probably not aided by the two previous films’ box office failings. Yet here we are in the 2010s and, after a few false production starts, Hardy has completed a new film. The product of those efforts, The Wicker Tree, is a reimagining of the themes and situations informing his 1973 film. Those themes and situations have been updated, reshuffled, and tinkered with, but they’re still recognizably those of The Wicker Man. Unfortunately, Hardy’s filmmaking is not: the film’s medium-grade digital compositions are lensed largely flatly with almost no dynamic camerawork, leaving the film with the general appearance of a lackluster BBC production*. Add to this a Wonderful World of Disney score, peppered with twangy, countrified orchestral tunes, and what we find is a film somewhat lacking in technique. The one major step forward in his filmmaking abilities is his new penchant for making the musical moments more organic to the diegetic world of the film—characters do not simply burst into fully orchestrated song, as they did in The Wicker Man, but can generally be found carrying around a guitar or sitting at a piano. But an adjustment like this makes clear that Hardy is oblivious to the very elements of his earlier film that worked: those left-field musical interludes in The Wicker Man (which, upon first viewing, left me slack-jawed) are part of its inherent appeal.
Also lost in any sense of tone—is it a black comedy? A melodrama? A cult horror thriller? A religious critique? A film that could deftly blend these various tones into one film while defying audience expectations would be great (and it is; it’s called The Wicker Man), but The Wicker Tree cannot seem to clearly utilize any of them. The horror elements are muted to the extent that it’s difficult to even read this as a horror film until the last 25 minutes—when the May Day is underway, what horrific premises we receive are decent, but a little too late to make much difference (plus, the horror is still continually undermined by offbeat jokes). While The Wicker Man has an uneasy, tension-filled build-up, The Wicker Tree is content to have its villains continuously snickering at their gullible victims, cracking crude jokes, and falling just short of comically running their fingers across their throats. It’s these humor elements that commit the most egregious sins: the religious satire is incredibly reductive, and what isn’t satire is simply corny innuendo.
So let’s deal with the satire and the film’s “message.” It’s attacked from two basic angles. In one, it’s laid out in a scene of exposition by the film’s Lord Summerisle proxy, Sir Lachlan Morrison. The town of Tressock is conveniently situated next to a nuclear power plant. This power plant, having some sort of ambiguous “incident,” has contaminated the town’s water supply and rendered the townsfolk infertile. Sir Lachlan, the owner of the power plant, has taken to persuading the townsfolk that it was in fact the goddess Sulis who cursed the town with infertility and only their renewed faith in violent, cannibalistic Celtic rituals will reverse these effects (the town being apparently incurious as to the effects of having a poorly-managed nuclear plant in their backyard). The second angle of the satire arises in the general cluelessness, blind faith, and spiritual hollowness of the film’s Born Again protagonists (Beth, who looks like Britney Spears but with the career trajectory of Katy Perry played in reverse, and Steve, a thick, hunky cowpoke). When we reach the film’s conclusion and see whom is punished for their transgressions, that satirical message shines through brightly: it is barbarous to utilize religion—be it Christian or Pagan—for selfish, personal ends, especially when indoctrinating others. A conclusion such as this is simply too pat and frankly too moral. A measure of religious ambiguity introduced nearly right before the credits roll doesn’t soften or complicate this cut-and-dry thesis. It’s not that this is a notion wholly undeserving of being included or explored (though “nuclear power/capitalism = cannibalistic” probably is), but the entire film is left to hang on it, which is simply weak, simplistic thematic structuring. What’s being left to consider? In the wrong hands, religion is manipulative and empty, says The Wicker Tree. O rly?
I hate to keep looping back to discussion of The Wicker Man (because the last thing I would have wanted this film to be was a total retread of that film), but compare the resolutions we must: In The Wicker Man, Lord Summerisle and Sergeant Howie use their religious beliefs to support their boorish and malevolent behavior. When their clash of wills comes to a head, we’re not presented with a definitive statement—neither man is condemned outright, nor is one deemed correct and the other mistaken**. Instead, we’re forced to absorb some ambiguity and stare deep into the horrifying result that their struggle has produced. It’s one of the most profound and unsettling endings in horror cinema. Conversely, The Wicker Tree ends with a visual joke involving a vacuum cleaner. Case closed.
*Occasionally, as in the case of Wicker Man villain Christopher Lee’s twenty-second cameo, it looks even worse. This scene, filmed with a painfully-hazy green screen, is rather more upsetting than shoddy: age has taken a decided toll on Lee in the interval between his performance here and the relatively limber turns he took in the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars prequel trilogies. He was initially cast in the Sir Lachlan Morrison role, but watching these brief moments makes it depressingly easy to understand why plans changed.
**A recent film that deals with similar issues and conflicts to a much more successful degree is (surprisingly) Kevin Smith’s equally tonally-challenged genre mashup Red State. It reaches Wicker Man-levels of contemplation at its crescendo before also falling victim to a gag and a message (a couple, actually). Regardless, it’s a competently made film that nearly succeeds in blending its diverse tones—and I think it contains the seeds that, if present and allowed to blossom, could have made The Wicker Tree work.