Abertoir 2011 Review: The Wicker Tree
Review by Keri O’Shea
Robin Hardy is obviously a man who likes to take his time. It’s been the best part of forty years since The Wicker Man first graced screens and yet, this year, he has – finally – completed and released The Wicker Tree, based on his novel Cowboys for Christ. I saw a teaser of the new film at last year’s Abertoir and to be honest – my heart sank. I feared the worst. It all looked too self-aware, too patchy, too daft.
So, when I sat down to watch the finished article this year, I was pleased that the worst case scenario I’d feared hadn’t come to be. It does look better in its entirety. That said, the movie as a whole still begs many questions. With apologies, I feel as disorientated as Sergeant Howie must have felt on the day he realised all was not as it seemed in Summerisle (well okay, not quite): The Wicker Tree is not, as I first thought, a straightforward sequel to the earlier film, but then it kind-of is. There’s a Christopher Lee cameo in it which suggests…maybe…that a character in the newer film was acquainted with Lord Summerisle. The timescale doesn’t seem to fit though. So it could be that any perceived links to the Summerisle family are entirely coincidental, and Lee’s playing someone else? And then, this could also be seen as a ‘reimagining’. After all, it has – by and large – an identical plot to The Wicker Man, only with fertility instead of fruit at issue, and missionaries instead of a missing person bringing strangers into a strangely-recognisable, isolated Scottish community. Or is it a ‘companion piece’ to The Wicker Man? Or none of the above?
What can we take away from me getting in such a tangle? Well, be this a remake or a sequel, if you’re like me you will probably try – and probably fail – to eradicate The Wicker Man from your minds as you watch this. You’ll keep reminding yourself that it’s unfair to compare Man with Tree; one is a stylish, slow-burn thriller, the other is all a bit Carry On Sacrificing. And yet, as the very-similar plot unfolds, whatever the difference in tone, however much you try to see this on its own terms, the huge presence of The Wicker Man will continue to cast a shadow and The Wicker Tree sadly just does not have the nous to step out of it.
The plot, then: Trailer Trash Love turned pledge ring wearing born-again Christian Beth Boothby (Brittania Nichol) and her Stetson-wearing boyfriend Steve (Henry Garrett) make the long trip from Texas to the community of Tressock in Scotland to sing the word of God at the unbelievers. There, they are warmly greeted by Sir Lachlan Morrison, Laird of the land, and the townsfolk, who seem open to the Christian message and really get behind the hymns. So far, so good. But if cinema has taught us anything, it’s never to trust the friendly overtures of small communities. The lack of amenities really screws with people, and in Tressock’s case nuclear pollution from a nearby plant seems to have rendered the populus infertile too: no babies have been born in the village for years. That’s where the friendly Texans come in.
Not only can we see where all this is going, but the film knows we know where it’s going. It can’t recreate the subtle creep of the original/prequel and understands as much, so instead it paints in very broad strokes and isn’t afraid to send itself up as a pastiche. Fair enough. So, you settle into that mode, and then it switches back to horror. You start to appreciate the horror elements, then it reverts to sharp-object-up-the-kilt hilarity. Also, whilst a lot of the humour is obviously intentional, I’m not sure that all of it was. The script here isn’t a work of art and, although some of the lead actors do their damnest, there’s a fair amount of stilted dialogue between key characters, with some of them beyond caricature, particularly our visiting Americans – as underlined by the stronger performances in the film, those of McTavish as Morrison and to an extent, Honeysuckle Weeks as Lolly. Although there are good elements to the film – the locations are good, the music more than holds its own against the never-surpassed soundtrack of The Wicker Man (there I go again, making comparisons) – my resounding feeling was that here’s a film which isn’t quite at ease with itself. Horror? Comedy? Neither in a satisfactory sense, I’m afraid. The mad jumble of sloppy religious critique with physical comedy, mixed with bawdiness, topped off with horror just felt too busy, too out of balance for me.
The Wicker Tree was certainly watchable and did at least surpass my expectations; it’s just that I ended up wondering why this has been made after all these years. What is it for? Horror comedy is tricky at the best of times.This later film isn’t offensively bad, but it is definitively mixed up and whilst this may well be due to the protracted process which has dogged the film’s production and the various issues it has come up against, this doesn’t have the feel of an accomplished piece. Sometimes I guess the brilliance of a prequel/original/sister movie can be a curse.