Fantasia 2011: THE WICKER TREE Review

The Wicker Man is one of those films that has taken on such a life of its own over the past 38 years.  It succeeded against all manner of personality conflict, distribution woes, and production logistics - tales of which are legendary -  to pretty much re-mythologize various old pagan rituals and philosophies and has hypnotized and surprised fans of thrillers, art-house horror, and folk-laden musicals.  Director Robin Hardy calls The Wicker Man its own genre:  The Wicker Man genre.  Ironically, the 1973 film is in itself a satire of sorts on the power of belief, but that did not stop its fecundity of myth-making from re-establishing icons (look no further than modern Beltane festivals, Burning Man and other such festivals around the world) in popular culture that went well beyond simple film circles.  Christopher Lee, who famously played Lord Summerisle as a mixture of haughty academic superiority and benevolent believer has often claimed The Wicker Man as his favourite film, and this on a resume that spans hundreds of films of all genres, budgets and ambition.  Quite simply, the film is one of the greatest movies about the nuts and bolts of religion and the power of belief (a quite separate thing from religion, I assure you) as a tool for manipulation.  A thriller, a mystery hidden in plain sight that shocks the audience in its final scene with a power rarely seen in movies, past or present.  

So.

How do you top that?

The Wicker Tree is a spiritual sequel from the original director separated by nearly four decades.  Expectations are the trickiest of things in pulling something like this off.  You are not going to be able to recreate the surprise of the original, as that is quite simply what audiences expect.  One has to look no further than disaster of Neil LaBute's remake to understand that it is not a good idea to simply repeat the original film in a location with a few token changes.  And Robin Hardy takes a massive risk to re-frame The Wicker Tree as a broad satire.  The sacrificial 'heroes' this time around are goodie-goodies all wholeheartedly different type of naïveté and the villains are of the mustache twirling variety.  The original film skirted the razors edge of absurdity, a modern cult practicing unfettered off the coast of Scotland trick an uptight man of the law and God into their web, that managed to stay on the believable side of the line due to the righteous indignation of Edward Woodward's Sgt. Howie, the stature and talent of Christopher Lee and a verité visual/musical aesthetic.   The new film is a ferocious piece of camp which acts as a bait-and-switch for a surrepticiously intelligent cache of social commentary.  It is occasionally pedantic (as was original) but leavened with a tongue in cheek sense of humour that goes out of its way (intentional or not) to undermine the power of  myth-making in the original.  Nobody comes out of this unscathed.  The film may have a cheapo-TV-veneer look, and his characters may be straw men (I absolutely could not resist that joke, sorry) but the film is a conversation starter to be sure, akin to how Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant:  Port of Call New Orleans was to Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant.  Considering the evocative title that Hardy's source novel is published under, "Cowboy's For Christ", I will go against my pet peeve of the colon and ungainly long titles to suggest the final release of this new film should be titled The Wicker Tree:  Cowboys for Christ to get at both the connection to the original, and the sublime absurdity of this remake, sequel or whathaveyou.

Starting in Dallas, Texas, in a small corn-pone gospel church, where Britney Spears manqué, Beth Boothby (a fresh and game Brittania Nicol) along with her authentic cowboy finance show off their silver purity rings to the congregation as they are sent off on a year long mission to spread the word of Jesus Christ to the heathens of Scotland.  Young, dumb and full of cu...er...vapid righteousness, these younglings possess their sense of spirituality in the form Hallmark greetings as an absolute end; not any sort of road to enlightenment.  Wet behind the ears, apple-cheeked Beth, and aw-shucks Steve, end up in the vipers nest of the Tressock Estate on the Scottish-English border and in the hands of of Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish.)  It is implied that Morrison (bearing Rowan's surname) is generation or two distant to Lord Summerisle.  Christopher Lee, god bless the man, appears in a awkward cameo to offer his benediction on this project but ends up, in no ambiguous terms, stating the thesis of the Wicker Man genre.   A shadow of his former kinsman Lord McTavish and his Lady of reptilian demeanor groom Beth and Steve to be the May Day sacrifice while simultaneously offering a blunt chorus of mockery of their guests' American unworldly earnestness and "power of the blood" hymnal collection.  It seems the fertility issues on the Tressock Estate are not the apple crop, but rather an entire generation of women (or perhaps it is the men) failing to have children.  This might also have something to do with McTavish's business venture that employs nearly all of his people, a nuclear power plant up the way leaking Tritium into the water supply.  McTavish himself even stylizes himself a real Montgomery Burns.   Capturing the ironic tone of the film, the very water supply that the women submerge themselves into, as a baptism of sorts or a pagan ritual of sorts (things not so far apart really) to enhance their fertility, may be the cause of the peoples secret greif.   

Since much of the audience of The Wicker Tree expects how this is going to play out, Hardy noodles with this expectations.  First with the overt comical tone of the picture, then, getting in to the meat of things, with the nature of the sacrifice.  The director weaves the requisite musical component, Robbie Burns' lyrics and traditional Scottish balladry is mixed alongside  gospel tunes and pop-tart New Country trash which is evident conflict at hand within the film and in a meta-sense, of this films relatiohship to the original.  But the goal, I believe is not to achieve the mythic horror of the original, but make a point of belittling it, akin to singing the same song with a completely different grammar.  It is a very novel way to go about a sequel, particularly considering the same director (albeit absent co-writer Anthony Shaffer) behind both entries.  As further commentary, the Beltane Fire Society, a collection of amateur pagan enthusiasts who mount a popular and carnal annual Beltane Festival in Scotland, stand in for the villagers, as if to say The Wicker Tree is more performance art than honest narrative.  The eponymous tree, as a totem, is much more stylized and nouveau-art-chic than the original which was conceivably cobbled together by the carpenter-fisherman peasants of Summerisle.  I will not reveal the ending, but state simply that is not as critically important (or surprisingly inevitable) as in 1973 film.  How could it be? More a farcical tone, an Outer Limits level reveal, ends the film when there is nothing more to do with its cardboard mannequin characters.

Far more interesting is approach of the film, more Alexander Payne than Edgar Allen Poe.  It offers a number of ripostes on the nature of evangelical religion in America, and the backing off of the separation of church and state (and foreign policy.)  It is as scathing in its treatment of the antiquated Scottish Royalty as soapy Boris and Natasha villains who tool around in Ferraris and more interest in business ventures than civic harmony.  The ritual of Riding the Laddie, in which fox-hunter clad woman chase down a virile young man (our Cowboy for Christ) on his gallop to a castle, is treated in some scenes with historical dignity and ceremony, and others it is milked for maximum witty innuendo.  Bluntly speaking, the The Wicker Tree is going to be seen as horrific and blasphemous to those who saw the original film as an act of iconic horror and blasphemy.  Yet underneath its broad tone and stagey execution is something worthy of conversation that might be best to walk with your eyes open.  The film may not be as elegant (or cinematic) as the original, but perhaps is a more pertinent commentary on our times, and in the end it appears that Robin Hardy is telling the world to simply, "Lighten up" instead of "Light them up!"  Amen.
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