Wednesday, February 8, 2012

THE WICKER TREE (2010) - don't let the low hanging fruit of religious zealotry hit you in the head

It seems the people of Scotland have lost their way. Not only have they turned away from Jesus, many of them have even stopped believing in angels! How do they get through the day? What if you’re walking through Home Depot and Satan shows up and hurls a fireball at your crotch, but you don’t have an Angel to block it with a forcefield? All I’m saying is, it’s important to be prepared.

Thankfully, America comes to the rescue yet again, sending two born again missionaries to the small Scottish town of Tressock; Beth (Brittania Nicol), a sweet cheeked country singer, and Steve (Henry Garrett, with a wavering southern accent), her cowboy boyfriend. Contrary to what one might expect, Beth doesn’t play a “shitkicker Jesus gonna stick his boot in your ass” brand of country music, but something more beautiful and hymnal-based (to where I wouldn’t mind having a soundtrack album). Where as Steve seems like a herded follower, Beth is a true believer whose deep seeded love of Jesus radiates outward, and her music reflects this. It would have been easy to make her a caricature, a dumb American blindly threatening hellfire, but she resolutely and honestly believes with the best of intentions. This seems like a key to the movie; it might be poking fun at religion, but never at the character of Beth.

The pair are escorted through Tressock by the sexy and savagely dry Lady Delia (Jacqueline Leonard) and the Baron Sir Lachlan (Graham McTavish), a cynical messiah quite literally inspired by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) from the original The Wicker Man. Ominous signs abound, most playfully with a stuttering prophet quoting “The Raven” whilst threatening the Americans with the titular bird. Several locals break into song, with lyrics both ominous and humorously erotic, but the Americans only recognize them as spiritual cousins to the country hymns they are already familiar with. That is, songs of surface spiritual beauty instead of portenders of doom.

Jacqueline Leonard back when perms were legally mandatory

The American couple hands out Jesus pamphlets door to door and try to impress the Scots by saying things like “Jesus was braver than Rob Roy!” Yeah, that’ll work. So impressed are the locals that they honor the pair by crowning them the “May Queen and Laddie” of the Mayday festival. Maybe this is the heathen’s way of accepting the couple into the fold and possibly accepting Christianity in the process…but probably not. I guess as an atheist, I can’t help but be a cynic.

The Wicker Tree is basically a black comic variation on the original (one of my very favorite British movies of all time). Not a spoof, mind you, but a dry and ironic take that plays off of the original. If you doubt this is a comedy, look at the respective scenes where Steve and Beth are faced with blasphemous temptation. Steve happens upon a randy hussy (I think that’s the technical term) bathing nude in a pond, and he is quickly and easily seduced despite his proclamation to chastity. However, Beth merely plays one of the trashy and suggestive songs she recorded before she was saved (“Trailer Trash Love”), and she starts to sway her hips to the rhythm, but quickly catches herself before she succumbs to immorality. The movie isn’t necessarily pointing and laughing at Beth, but presenting a character based dig at religion and sexual repression.

The movie also brings to mind director Robin Hardy’s previous film, the little seen The Fantasist, which is about a serial killer stalking an Irish woman and harassing her with dirty phone calls. That sounds like a standard stalker movie, but The Fantasist is to the stalker movie as The Wicker Tree is to The Wicker Man. That is, familiar material twisted into a dry black comedy steeped in sexual repression. Also, The Wicker Tree is usually pretty dialogue driven, but is punctuated by operatic bits of macabre horror, like a steadicam shot that roars through a corridor and happens upon a butcher hacking away, or the tactile closeups of dead animals, or the shots from the POV of the raven (reminding me of similar shots in Dario Argento’s Opera). Speaking of which, The Fantasist is also punctuated by Argento-esque stylistic flourishes although, for all I know, Hardy may have never even seen an Argento movie. The point is, the film is more of a comedy punctured with bits of grotesque horror, where as the original maintains a creepy slow burn more akin to a Roman Polanski.

The results are more fractured and strangely paced than the original, as we spend quite a bit of time with several oddball characters before most of the major plot events and twists happen in the last half hour or so, making the second act feel sluggish and much longer than the other two. However, this also keeps the movie off-kilter, since it doesn’t build in the same way as the original, and even though the impending horror is obvious, it too uses this against the viewer.

I guess the general lesson to take away from The Wicker Tree is that religion can somewhat be held in check by society, but when the society is the religion, the crazy tends to spread like wildfire. Remember that “Heaven’s Gate” cult that castrated themselves, gave away their earthly possessions, and then killed themselves by drinking arsenic in order to thereby escape Earth on a U.F.O.? I know you might feel like you should try to talk some sense into people like that, but I say, stand up for religious freedom by running and hiding from the wackos.

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