Sunday, June 10, 2012

Wicker It, Just a Little Bit

Writing about the psuedo sequel to my third favorite film of all time is no easy feat, and hence, the weakling inside me is taking the easy way out: I’m excusing The Wicker Tree as a warm-up for whatever Robin Hardy does next.

See, give the 82 year old filmmaker a break. It’s been quite some time since his he last got behind a camera and everybody needs a good warmup.

The Wicker Tree is just a 90 minute yoga stretch.

Quick Plot: Beth Boothsby (fresh-faced Brittania Nicol) is a successful country singing star who just can’t stop warbling about Jesus. She pauses long enough for a goodbye party at her Baptist church, wherein the good cowboys of Texas send her and her fiancée Steve out to Scotland for a two-year missionary journey to bring Christ to pagans.

I don’t know about you, but I had no idea modern missionaries took European tours. Consider me schooled.

Shockingly enough, those funny voiced redheads don’t really want to hear about dying on the cross. Disheartened by the sound of doors slamming in their pretty faces, Beth and Steve reluctantly accept an invitation to the more rural town of Tresseck, where wealthy power couple Lord Lachlan and Lady Delia Morrison oversee a gaggle of plain folk who worship goddesses and nature.

Tresseck isn’t an easy home for two crazy Texans whose biggest source of pride shines from their promise rings. Beth is able to charm some of the townspeople with her voice, but her preaching never seems to land on open ears. This is especially hard on our country star since she is (gag) a born again virgin, having remade herself into a crucifix wearing angel after hitting it big with her original single, Trailer Trash Love (yes, there’s a music video set in a redneck bar and yes, it’s amazing).

On the other hand, Steve is far more willing to suspend his Christian beliefs for fleshier pleasures. After failing to seduce Beth, he takes a quick liking to local Lolly…mostly because she’s a pretty blond with a cute accent who likes to bathe in the nude and essentially say “Hey, I’d really like it if you came in here and had sex with me.”

And so he does.

See, Cowboy Steve ain’t no Sergeant Howie. Then again, Hardy has also argued that The Wicker Tree is NOT a sequel to his 1974 masterpiece. It’s more a companion piece, a film set in the same TYPE of world that also explores the contrasts and similarities of paganism and Christianity. Or something.

Sigh. It’s never easy to approach a follow-up to one of your all-time favorite films. Sometimes the results are pleasantly odd enough to make it work (Return to Oz) while others just feel like wasteful one-offs unworthy of their names (Starship Troopers 2—though in fairness, Part 3 is surprisingly sly).  Robin Hardy can SAY that The Wicker Tree isn’t a sequel, but why name it “The Wicker Tree” if that’s the case? Perhaps my immediate low point is that the title is positively distracting. Like other Hardy fans who have been following the film’s 4+ year journey through budget cuts and actor injuries, I would have rather sat down to watch a film called Cowboys For Christ and gone from there.

That being said, The Wicker Tree DOES still share some of its predecessor’s charms. The original music isn’t as insanely humful as Paul Giovanni’s catchy Landlord’s Daughter, but some of the songs are quite pretty in a haunting way. Aside from Beth’s Jesus jingles, there’s a striking number sang by a middle aged tavern wench about, as far as I could tell, doing the nasty in the forest.

But the REST of the film…well, it’s there with some great ideas, some truly creepy ones, and ultimately, no solid payoff for its religious buildup. Let’s get spoilery:

Whereas the townspeople of The Wicker Man were making human sacrifices to restore their harvest, the villagers of The Wicker Tree are suffering from a different, equally stirring plague: infertility. As Tresseck is too close to a nuclear power plant, the female population has been unable to conceive for some time. Naturally for a bunch of nature worshipping Europeans, the logical way to fight this is to sacrifice two innocent(ishes) in some extremely brutal fashions, i.e., skin the female and call her The May Queen and tear the cowboy apart to eat with your bare hands. I imagine Hardy is trying to show an extreme case of religious fanaticism to compare to Steve and Beth’s overly fanatical (yet more conventionally accepted) Christianity. But the problem is, what is he actually accomplishing by having the pagans prove to be so brutal?

It’s a tough question and perhaps a second viewing might make more themes clear. The IDEAS are certainly there, but considering how much time is spent on Beth’s conversion from a slutty Britney Spears knockoff to a fully clothed church girl, it’s odd that her character ultimately gets no real choice in or lesson from her awful fate. Perhaps some of you smarter readers who have watched The Wicker Tree can help.


High Notes
Not spoiling, but just sayin’: like in The Wicker Man, people die in some fairly horrific manners, all of which are suggested without being deliberately shown. I found it chilling

Yes, Graham McTavish's role was supposed to be played by the god that is Christopher Lee, but I still found his self-proclaimed Monty Burnsish millionaire to be an effective villain. Similarly, Nicol captures the perfect essence of an overly devout without much brains Christian princess

Low Notes
Hey, I’m not going to argue with the hypocrisy of Bible interpretation, but it just feels like the script could have pointed this out in a more organic show-don’t-tell way. Instead, we have out pagan characters describing Christian beliefs about the rapture. The execution felt lazy

Lessons Learned
Contrary to common Englishman belief, The Clitoris is NOT an island off Greece famous for its ouzo

Never ask a Christian cowboy to play poker. He’ll probably just spend hours going through each card and explaining what it has to do with Jesus and really, you’ve got money to win already. Eff that dude

Cowboys keep their hats on

The Winning Line
“Where is my bowl of eyes?”
Because, come on: it’s one thing to HAVE a bowl of eyes. It’s a far greater thing to misplace it

It’s hard to know how to recommend The Wicker Tree. If you’re a diehard fan of The Wicker Man (like me), then you kind of HAVE to see where Hardy went next, even if the results are just nowhere nearly as satisfying as you might hope. That being said, there is some beautiful landscaping, weirdly paced horrors, and haunting original songs that make even an ultimately lackluster film still something more special than your average straight-to-DVD genre picture. So put it on your queue for an eventual watch. It won’t change your belief in cinema or fertility goddesses, but it will be something unique.

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