Thursday, August 09, 2012

Cult-Movie Review: The Wicker Tree (2011)

There’s a strange glitch in the human psyche that encourages people of one religious faith to believe fully all manners of fantastical stories about their own chosen God while simultaneously standing back, judging, and dismissing the particularities of another faith’s deity. 

Your God is a woman who lives in the river and must mate with a willing human sacrifice every harvest season

Why, that’s patently ridiculous! 

(And please pay no attention to the fact that my God is a tri-part being, one of whom can walk on water, turn water into wine, and heal the sick with a touch…)

Robin Hardy’s horror film The Wicker Tree (2011) largely concerns this ubiquitous glitch in our human programming. 

Based on the 2006 book Cowboys for Christ, the movie is very much a twenty-first century re-statement of The Wicker Man’s (1973) aesthetic concerning hypocrisy.  It’s easy for a person of intense “faith” to self-righteously believe his way is the right one for everybody, and wish to selfishly impose that belief system on other folk, often whether such interference is desired or not. 

As you may recall, The Wicker Man concerned a British policeman and Catholic, Sgt. Howe (Edward Woodward) who visited the “pagan” island, Summerisle, only to be unwittingly recruited into a fertility ritual that required, ultimately, his sacrifice. 

The movie indicted Howe as a hypocrite for his inability to view the Summerisle’s non-Christian faith as a legitimate one.  Howe’s inability to see the ‘facts’ of the island outside his self-righteous Christian lens ultimately led him to a fiery and unpleasant demise.  Howe’s disrespect for the locals was actually stunning in the original film.  In one scene, he laid down a cross – an icon of his faith – on the grave of a boy who was not a Christian.  How do you think that made the boy’s parents feel?  It wasn’t an act of kindness, but one of usurpation and sacrilege.

The Wicker Tree concerns two evangelical, born-again Christians from Texas, pop singer Beth Boothby (Jacqueline Leonard) and her boyfriend, Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett) as they take a missionary trip to bring the message of Christ to the so-called “lost people” of Scotland, a realm where “people don’t believe in angels.”  These “young redeemers” also wear twin chastity rings so as to remember their vows of chastity.

Soon upon their arrival in Scotland, Beth and Steve get spotted by pagan cult leaders Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife, Delia (Jacqueline Leonard), and tagged to participate in their yearly May Day celebration, which honors the Goddess called “Sulis.”  Beth and Steve are too committed to their missionary cause -- and their narrow world view -- to detect that they are in tremendous jeopardy.

As May Day nears, Beth agrees to be Queen of the May, and Steve -- who eerily resembles Kirk Cameron -- takes on the role of Laddie in the festival…

As this synopsis reveals, the outlines of the two Hardy films are very similar, but The Wicker Tree is simultaneously somewhat less scary and much funnier than in its predecessor.  This is not such good news for horror fans, I suppose, but the film is still quite enjoyable.   Specifically, The Wicker Tree is wickedly observant and merciless in its commentary on what might widely be termed the “religious mentality” and the universal glitch I mentioned above.  The film concerns one religion seeking to use another religion, which in turn is exploiting the original religion.  Not a pretty picture.

I’m certain some audiences will view The Wicker Tree as anti-Christian, but, frankly, that’s a mistaken interpretation.  Beth and Steve are portrayed in the film as well-meaning rubes and rednecks, but are ultimately too innocent and callow to be figures that audiences can hate or even really dislike.   Where Howe was something of a hypocritical prick in The Wicker Man, you can’t make the same argument about Beth and Steve.  Right up until the end of the film, I was perched on the edge of my seat, hoping for these Texans to escape from the trap the Lachlans had sprung.

By contrast, the pagan leaders – Lachlan and Delia – are truly despicable sorts, and that’s precisely how the film portrays them.  Lachlan runs a local nuclear plant that irradiated the nearby river and caused the village’s women to become infertile.  Lachlan uses his (apparent) faith in Sulis as cover for his administrative and environmental misdeeds, and represents, in my opinion, the film’s true dark force: the unholy nexus of out-of-control capitalism, extreme wealth, and organized religion.   

Considering the depiction of the lead characters, I conclude that The Wicker Tree doesn’t wish to dismiss or diminish the concept of faith, or even the concept of God, but rather expose the supposedly “pious” men and women who trumpet their faith, in truth, as a form of self-glorification.  As evidence for this assertion, I would point the viewer to two very brief but crucial sequences. 

In one, Steve – the evangelical Christian – actually sees Sulis, the pagan Goddess, stretched out on a bed beside him, validating her as a “real” force or entity. 

Then, at the film’s end, we catch a second glimpse of an icon, this one validating Steve and Beth’s Christian faith.  

Surely, these moments would not be included if The Wicker Tree simply concerned “hating” religion and mocking any particular denomination or religion.  Instead, such inclusions suggest that though Gods may be real, human beings sure as hell make terrible use of them....

I don’t feel, honestly, that The Wicker Tree works all that effectively as horror film, though there is an extremely disturbing and gory scene near movie’s end.  The film boasts some intense and anxiety-provoking moments in the last act too, and also benefits from a growing sense of inevitability.  The only problem is that if you've seen The Wicker Man, that sense of inevitability feels more like familiarity.  Nonetheless, I would recommend the film on the basis of the humor and social commentary.   I particularly enjoyed the aspects of The Wicker Tree that showcase Beth’s earlier career iteration as a kind of slutty Jessica Simpson-type singer, another suggestion -- albeit a subtle one -- that her finding of faith coincided, in part, with her finding of a path to earn more greenbacks.

As far as the central performances are concerned, the break-out star here is an actress named -- I kid you not -- Honeysuckle Weeks.  Weeks plays the sexually aggressive, but ultimately pitiable and very human character, Lolly, and is terrific in the role.  I couldn't take my eyes off Weeks, not because she is beautiful (she is), but because she has real charisma, and a brand of fetching, off-kilter way of delivering lines and interacting with her fellow actors.

In some ways, both Wicker movies (I’m not counting the 2006 remake with Nic Cage) are not really about how terrible religions are, but rather how different religions can be from one another…and yet still be legitimate expressions of faith and spirituality.  I love how the films view sex, for instance, and observe different religious feelings about the role of the sex drive in the human animal.

But finally, I wonder, about the movie's point, the line of thinking I opened with.  Why do we thoughtlessly accept the inconsistencies in our own religion, while mercilessly pointing out the flaws in others?  What quality is it about us, as thinking creatures, that demands other people accept our personal beliefs regarding God and accept them as concrete fact?  Why can’t we live and let live?  And why isn’t there enough room for both Christ and Sulis, or Christ and Muhammad, without the followers of both deities waging war on one another?


  1. crazyly insightful post. If only it was as easy to implement some of the solutions as it was to read and nod my head at each of your points

    1. Thank you. I'm glad you thought the post was insightful! Appreciate the support very much.

      All my best,

  2. Anonymous12:02 PM

    John extremely interesting Wicker Tree(2011) review, I have not seen this film, yet. I saw both the Wicker Man(1973) and the less appealing (2006) remake. I have one question is the UK police officer hat that Lolly, in posted screen cap, is wearing supposed to be the same one that Sgt. Howe (Edward Woodward) wore in the Wicker Man(1973)?


    1. SGB:

      Oh my gosh, that would have been awesome if the hat you see in the photograph belonged to Howe. It may signify that hat, visually, but there is no narrative connection, alas. It would have really been cool though...

      Great idea, man, I wish that there had been that link!!


  3. the conclusion that SHOULD be drawn by these movies re: why do we enforce personal beliefs upon one another is: there is too much at stake, personally.

    People base and build their lives upon constructs that allow them to deal with the world's uncertainty and chaos. We use our religions to tie meaning to mostly random events (sickness, death, bad shit happening). It's life-and-death stuff, for us. So, once we get those sorted out for ourselves, we don't take kindly to other people coming along and telling us "you know, God doesn't really answer prayer, right?" and "you're not getting a harem with a 1000 harlots when you die, you know..." and "you're not getting your own planet when you die" and, my favorite, "everything happens for a reason" (generic!).

    I would extend this notion to non-religious fundamentalists - atheists who are just as adamant about there NOT being truth to articles of faith.

    I may be shooting bullets in the sky here but I think "Knowing" with Nic Cage (ironically enough) addresses these topics well.

    1. Hi Gunnertec,

      I am also a deep admirer of Knowing, which I reviewed here in 2009. A much better film than a lot of folks realize, I think. Glad to hear you enjoyed it as well.

      I agree entirely with the points you make in your comment, and about the ways about humans make use of religion and God-imagery. I also appreciate the fact that your spot-on comment included atheists. "Fundamentalism," I like to say, is not about what you believe, but how you believe it.

      All my best,

  4. I always saw the first Wicker Man as a way of showing how frivolous all religions are, our beliefs hang on pure happenstance, it all depends on where you are born!

    1. TFC:

      A great insight about religion, and the "why" of it. It comes down to location, and tribes, I think. We all want to be part of the tribe around us.

      I would like it, however, if the pantheon of Gods could exist side by side, and people could state their preference respectfully, and then allow others to choose (or select "none of the above), also respectfully.

      Best wishes,