A Religion Not of Benevolence, but of Egocentrism: ‘The Wicker Tree’

[8 May 2012]

By Marco Lanzagorta

The Cowboys for Christ

The Wicker Tree is one of those flicks that is impossible to watch without having extremely high expectations. Indeed, The Wicker Tree is somewhat of a sequel to the esteemed The Wicker Man (1973), by any means one of the best horror films ever made. Furthermore, Robin Hardy, the director of the classic original film, is at the helm of this postmillennial examination of the conflict between traditional religion and extant pagan cults. Unfortunately, and perhaps not completely unexpected, The Wicker Tree pales in comparison to its revered predecessor.

The Wicker Tree is a rather close adaptation of Hardy’s own titillating novel, Cowboys for Christ. Oddly enough, the evocative title of the book seems to be much more adequate to describe the story that unfolds than “The Wicker Tree”. Most likely, the producers behind this film felt that, in the hopes of achieving higher marketability it was necessary to have an explicit connection to The Wicker Man. But then again, it’s ironic that younger audiences probably associated The Wicker Tree to the dismal and ludicrous 2010 remake. In any event, The Wicker Tree appears to have failed both its financial and artistic expectations.

As The Wicker Tree begins, we are introduced to Beth (Brittania Nicol), a young pop-singer converted into a born again Christian. As shown in an old video recording, Beth’s artistic style used to be similar to the sexually charged Britney Spears. After her religious conversion, however, she uses her vocal talents to spread the Christian dogma. A couple of scenes suggest that Beth’s newfound spiritual commitment is a consequence of touching bottom due to some drug abuse problem. In such a way, The Wicker Tree associates religious faith with personal redemption and salvation, instead of magnanimous humanity and benevolence. As a matter of fact, such connotation quickly becomes one of the principal ideological subtexts of the film.

Beth is engaged to Steve (Henry Garrett), a spot-on cowboy who loves the peaceful life on his father’s farm, riding horses. Sharing the same passion for their religious beliefs, Beth and Steve gladly accept when their church sends them in an evangelical mission to Scotland. Clearly, their church is more interested in exploiting Beth’s fame and popularity to gain converts, rather than in the selfless preaching of the Christian dogma. Much as Beth, her church’s faith is not based in benevolence but egocentrism.

Although it’s not expressed in the film, the book reveals that the name of Beth and Steve’s church is “Cowboys for Christ”. Clearly, the clever title of the novel also has a heavy connotation to the way the church heedlessly sends two inexperienced and naïve teenagers into a difficult and dangerous mission. Even though Beth is popular among her young fans, adults don’t have the time or the inclination to hear any of their evangelization sermons.

The only persons that show interest in the young missionaries are Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Lady Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard). Despite the fact that they openly confess to be faithful members of a pagan cult, Sir Morris encourages Beth and Steve to try to evangelize their small village of Tressock.

At this point The Wicker Tree makes obvious Beth and Steve’s hopeless situation. In their way to Tressock, Sir Morris embarrassingly exposes the ignorance and innocence of Beth when he asks her a difficult theological question. Once Beth agrees that the sacred scriptures constitute the absolute truth, Beth finds impossible to decide if starved kids in undeveloped countries with no access to Christian dogma deserve to go to hell. After a painful moment of utter confusion and self-doubt, Beth finally has to agree that, if that is what Christian dogma says, then it has to be truth.

Unknown to Beth, her pitiable doctrinaire reply to Sir Morris’ thorny question justifies the horrors that will follow. Furthermore, Beth sings a gospel song that states “There’s power in the blood of the lamb”. Poignantly, these lyrics will be taken literally by the town folk and used against the young evangelists. Indeed, after a chemical spill has left sterile the entire population of Tressock, the pagans expect salvation and redemption after a worthy human sacrifice to Sulis, the ancient Celt Goddess.

To Hardy’s credit, The Wicker Tree is a splendid exploration of the conflict between traditional Christian dogma and pagan cults. Once Beth and Steve confess to blindly follow their doctrine, even if it goes against common sense and humanitarian principles, it’s impossible to chastise the folks from Tressok, as basically they are doing the same thing. Thus, The Wicker Tree’s subversive ideology offers an unembellished criticism not only to small religious sects, but to any type of dogmatic institution.

Unfortunately, The Wicker Tree’s plot is not as well constructed as its predecessor. Indeed, The Wicker Man shows a perfectly structured plot where the principal character is forced to “willingly participate” in a pagan ritual. As explained in the film, the ceremony would be meaningless if he had been dragged against his will. On the other hand, the last act of The Wicker Tree boils down to the traditional backwoods slasher formula, where Beth serves as the perfunctory “final girl”. As such, a film that began as a subversive discourse against dogmatic institutions suddenly degenerates into a conventionally structured slasher flick.

Anchor Bay has recently released The Wicker Tree in a wonderfully looking blu-ray disc. Unfortunately, this home video presentation does not include any substantial special features. A brief documentary on the making of the film and a few deleted scenes that do not add much to the plot are not enough to fully appreciate the ideological and practical challenges of making a sequel to one of the best horror movies ever made. In any event, The Wicker Tree is a decent flick that, even though it fails to fulfill the expectations of the dedicated horror connoisseur, it manages to present an unembroidered critic to dogmatic institutions.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/158188-the-wicker-tree/