Fantasia 2011: ‘The Wicker Tree’ successfully reimagines Hardy’s masterpiece
Written by Robin Hardy
Directed by Robin Hardy
Made nearly 40 years ago, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man has become so engrained in the public imagination that spiritual and religious beliefs have actually sprung from his creation. There is nothing redundant in his revisiting of the small Scottish community of Summerisle, and his “sequel” engages and challenges aesthetic and thematic choices of the original film. Much as Werner Herzog creates a dialogue through pastiche and excess between original and remake in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Hardy employs similar techniques in his 21st century revisiting of religion, sex and oppression in adapting his novel Cowboys for Christ.
For those familiar with The Wicker Man, it is immediately evident that our two “innocent” youths on a missionary quest will meet a dire end. They represent the complicated image of modern purity, conflicted by the desire to indulge in the hedonism of contemporary society and a desire for eternal life. With no loss of irony, Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) tries to save the immortal souls of the Scots as she grapples with her former life as a promiscuous teen pop-star while continually aiming to expand her Christian audience. Her conviction for God rests in her appreciation for her own musical talent, and her worship for a higher power is little more than the worship of the self. Played mostly for laughs, this conflation between the self and God is as desperate and pitiful as it is hilarious.
The film’s over-lit, commercial look adds to its success as a social satire, as it utilizes an apparently disposable aesthetic to great effect. The Sun God of the original film has been replaced by the glowing power of radiation, a merciless and infinitely powerful man-made replacement that looms as a constant threat to the future of the human race. The glossy finish adds an impossible and ironic light to our All-American Stars who, with their saccharine enthusiasm, attempt to instill the fear of God in modern man. Their complete ignorance of the text they worship is a direct dialogue with the presentation of Christianity in the original film. Seargeant Howie may have been far more well versed with the Bible than our modern day cowboys, but he is similarly confused by the boundaries between the word of God and the Law. His extreme repression, seemingly borne from his Christian roots, rarely finds root in the Bible. He misinterprets cultural and social traditions as being rooted in his beloved text, when they are in fact clear misinterpretations or blatant falsifications. Both figures seem completely ignorant of their function within the social order and their importance in maintaining the status quo. While Sergeant Howie stepped into a dark world of pubs and rain, our American heroes walk into a Scotland with a constantly shining sun, but both are naive to the contradictions of their own oppressive faith.
The final image of The Wicker Man is spectacular, perhaps one of the greatest shots in all of film history. The wicker man’s large head, completely in flames, topples out of the frame. The raging fire matched against a sinister yellow sky disappears to reveal an impossibly red sun. This iconic image of the “straw man” being torn down amidst the sound of crackling fire and a tirade of religious rhetoric seems cruel rather than desperate in this final hour. In Hardy’s re-imagining, this image is replaced by the twisted, extended limbs of the Wicker Tree. Its arms, mangled and reaching to the heavens, glow in the afternoon light, and it is less an image of horror as much as it is one of misplaced hope. This darkly ironic connotation is perhaps even more disheartened than the image from the original film. In fact, most of the paganism on display in The Wicker Tree seems to be a kitsch parody of the rituals of the original film. It is as if time has robbed us of the power of the image, and what we are left with are strange, empty impressions of ideas that once held meaning, however misguided they may have been. Should we revel in or regret the fact that these beliefs that motivate “sin” no longer seem heartfelt, and are easily broken in a moment of impulse? Regardless, the answer seems aimless and cynical, and humanity does not fare particularly well.
The film’s wicked sense of humour cannot be emphasized enough, nor can the film’s strong sense of aesthetics. Most of the joy that the film supplies can be found in its colourful pastiche of symbolism (notably, the raven, a fine match for the hare), music (celtic meets cowboy hymns) and panoramic landscapes. Only time will tell if The Wicker Tree will live up to Robin Hardy’s first pagan horror film, which has been unofficially dubbed in some circles the “Citizen Kane of Horror,” but it stands out in this year’s Fantasia line-up as a fully realized work of a cinematic visionary. This is not only a great genre film, but a film that pushes the boundaries of cinema itself, easily on par with the works of our greatest contemporary filmmakers.