Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree could have been a much stronger film had it not been directed by Robin Hardy, which is a weird thing to think when you actually waste time thinking about it. Hardy is the director of the original 1973 film The Wicker Man and the author of 2006’s Cowboys for Christ, a thematic sequel to The Wicker Man. He’s now synonymous with The Wicker Man, a canonical British horror film about a murderous community of Scottish pagans. Hardy’s the first guy that balked in terror and dismay when Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man, an underdone parody-cum-remake, came out (also in 2006). While playwright Anthony Shaffer scripted the original Wicker Man, it is now considered Hardy’s baby, so who else could direct The Wicker Tree, an adaptation of Cowboys for Christ, but Hardy?
Anyone but Hardy, really. To be fair, The Wicker Tree’s script, which Hardy also adapted, is pretty sharp. He capably evokes the main ideas and wryly cynical sense of humor that makes Cowboys for Christ so entertaining. (Christopher Lee, who starred in the original Wicker Man and has a cameo in The Wicker Tree, heartily endorsed the book by saying, “It’s comic, romantic, sexy but also horrific enough to melt the bowels of a bronze statue.”) But as a director, Hardy hasn’t improved drastically in the intervening four decades between The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree. If there’s anything holding The Wicker Tree back from being the adaptation Hardy’s charmingly mean-spirited source material deserves, it’s unfortunately Hardy.
First, the good news: Hardy does a great job of slimming down Cowboys for Christ’s tangent-filled story to a 90-minute narrative. There are a couple of supporting characters that could have been left on the cutting room floor, like the Scotsman that speaks only in portentous selections from poems and songs. There are also some supporting characters that could stand to be fleshed out a little more, like Beame (Clive Russell), a Scottish butcher that does a lot of dirty work in Hardy’s story. But The Wicker Tree is mostly a very sharp version of Cowboys’ story.
Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) is a Texan pop star that used to sing empty-headed, salacious pop songs and now performs Christian-themed country music. Together with Steve (Henry Garrett), her cowboy boyfriend, Beth sets out to convert the residents of Tressock, Scotland to Christianity. This makes Beth and Steve prime targets for the sardonic Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonardas), community leaders that are more bemused than off-put by the Americans’ arrival. To Lachlan and Delia, the two missionaries are unexpected but not entirely unpleasant additions to their May Day festivities: Beth will be their Queen of the May and Steve will be their Laddie.
The Wicker Tree is as satisfying as it is because there’s a substantial give-and-take inherent in Hardy’s representation of Cowboys’ central Americans vs. Scots/sincerity vs. sarcasm/chastity vs. sex/Christianity vs. paganism feuds. Both Lachlan and Beth understand that their respective beliefs are determined by a combination of necessity and convenience. Lachlan tells Delia that he’s not a priest or a rabbi but rather a Maypole-worshipping pagan because he feels that’s the religion that will best serve the people of Tressock, whose population has steadily declined after they’ve become more reliant on a new nuclear power plant.
Likewise, Beth wants to turn her back on her past as a randy sex object and focus on her current position as a symbol of Christian piety. But the fact that she acknowledges that she willingly objectified herself in the past suggests that Beth’s also adept at role-playing. It’s fitting then that the character that bridges the ideological gap between Lachlan and Beth is Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks), a nymphomaniac that has sex with whomever Lachlan tells her to—for the good of their community.
That dichotomy is pretty prominent in The Wicker Tree, for which Hardy fans should be very grateful. What’s not in the film is the crass kind of energy needed to make what’s already a rude and macabre story memorably depraved. There are several key scenes, like the one where Steve meets his demise or when Beth dispatches Beame by almost severing one of his “googlies” with a broken glass, that just aren’t as effectively unnerving as they should be.
For instance, as it’s written in the book, Steve is literally torn apart by a hungry mob. A mob of people, armed only with their zealotry and prying fingers, strip a man of his clothes, skin and muscles and eat him alive. This is Looney-Tunes-by-way-of-Tales-from-the-Crypt kind of stuff, and in The Wicker Tree, Hardy shies away from representing the gristly, ridiculous nature of this sequence. He shows a crowd of Scotsmen frenziedly tucking into some kind of raw meat but never highlights the agony of Steve losing said meat. So while Cowboys’ ideas are present in The Wicker Tree, Hardy inexplicably tries to remove some of the more base aspects of his novel. The Wicker Tree consequently falters where it should bounce around gaily without restraint or a functioning ethical compass.
Still, I wish more people would watch The Wicker Tree. There’s so much of what made Cowboys for Christ terrific in Hardy’s film that I can’t help but want to overlook the bits of The Wicker Tree that simply don’t work. If you’re even remotely curious, seek it out. Come for the half-hearted impromptu castration, stay for the provocative moral relativism.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.