The Wicker Tree, Robin Hardy (2012)

Shot in 2010, this film just received an extremely limited stateside release, and it’s not hard to figure out why.  The original, The Wicker Man, was an understated creepy thriller from the early 70s that followed lead Edward Woodward as he investigated the disappearance of a missing girl and was sucked into the mysteries of an island village and its secret pagan religious beliefs.  Christopher Lee played Lord Summerisle, and the script was written by Anthony Shaffer, best known for Hitchcock’s Frenzy and the mystery/thriller Sleuth.  By comparison, The Wicker Tree was written by Robin Hardy, who directed both films, and as it turns out, he’s not much of a writer.

The biggest problem is that Hardy can’t settle on a tone.  Some of it is creepy and understated, but then he has some almost over-the-top, winking-at-the-audience humor.  There are bits with a Scottish cook sent to murder someone and who gets slashed in the genitalia, a local slut who can’t get enough sex but turns oddly sympathetic towards the leads, the town villagers who are as hyper-sexual as the frat-boys in a local university frat-house, and the right-wing Christian, bible-thumping leads.  Yes, for this sequel Hardy has made the leads a pair of young, born-again Christians from the deep South who travel to Scotland to preach door-to-door… when one of them already has a successful singing career in the States.  What?  Perhaps he doesn’t understand the shallow commercialism of most Americans.

The two young leads are wildly uneven.  There are scenes where Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett are surprisingly good, and there are probably an equal number of scenes where they are ludicrously awful.  And the opening scene that features them singing at their local church in Texas and getting ready to leave on their trip borders on the unwatchable.  The fact that their performances are so uneven is almost worse than if they’d simply been consistently bad.  After you watch them be not-terrible in one scene, you’ll feel bad for the actor later when they just can’t get it together in another scene.  I had the unfortunate experience of being in a theatre with about 10 other people, and perhaps 7 of them were Brittania Nicol and her friends.  They were all the typical Hollywood wannabes, so focused on the fact that their friend was now a “big star” and in a movie that no one was embarrassed for her or seemed to comprehend how terrible both she and the movie were.  They applauded her name when it came up on the screen during the opening credits, and again at the end.  She does have a beautiful singing voice, which is obviously what got her the part.  But she has more scenes in the film that are painful to watch than I can count.  I actually began wishing some generic CW actress capable of only the most mediocre and generic flatness had the role, because at least then I wouldn’t have felt bad for the actress while watching the movie.

If The Wicker Tree has any kind of a future, it’s destined to play college campuses and late-night alternative theatre programming and be laughed at.  Yet it’s just competent enough that it’s kept a step away from being one of those “so bad it’s good” movies.  Every time you settle in and decide just to enjoy it as a bad movie, an actor will actually turn in a decent performance for a few scenes, or the script will take a more serious turn for a bit.  And the inclusion of Christopher Lee is shameful.  Obviously they wanted to put his name in the cast list and be able to use him to promote the film, especially with his link to the original movie, but he shows up for a 3-minute flashback scene that’s totally irrelevant and feels written off the cuff.  To make matters worse, it looks like Lee, the actor, has one foot in the grave and that he’s almost been propped up in the scene just long enough for them to shoot.

There is a creepy and disturbing core to the film, but it borrows too much from the original while simultaneously ridiculing it tongue-in-cheek.  And while the lead actors are uneven, the supporting actors turn in performances guessing at the intended tone of the film in scatter-shot fashion.  What really would have helped them, and the film, was more competent direction, or more importantly, a more competent script.

But even were the various elements of the film improved, the largest problem comes from the narrative conceit.  The original was successful because it featured a mystery, and we were exploring this world with Woodward’s character.  A pair of Bible-thumpers from the States in Scotland to preach door-to-door who fumble themselves into a pagan ritual doesn’t quite have the same allure.  Rather than working to solve a mystery, you’re just watching a pair of idiots be idiots.  And as for the religious angle, Hardy himself fouls that one up.  He seems to want to criticize the closed-mindedness of organized religion and Christian fanaticism, but somewhere in the telling realizes that a) he needs his leads to be sympathetic, and b) that his pagans are equally fanatics.  So he ends up seemingly confused about what he’s criticizing and what he’s trying to say, and the themes of the film tie themselves into an incomprehensible knot over The Wicker Tree‘s running time.  A better director could have cleaned the whole mess up and made something of it, but it might have also removed the only distinguishing marks from this oddball disaster.


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