The Wicker Mom – A Review of Sacrifice
After suffering her fourth miscarriage, American obstetrician Dr. Tora Hamilton (Radha Mitchell) moves with her husband Duncan Guthrie (Rupert Graves) to his hometown on one of the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland, where they plan to adopt a child. On her new property, she soon discovers the body of a young woman. The corpse has been mutilated with strange symbols and its heart has been removed. The police believe the corpse to be centuries old, but Dr. Hamilton soon deduces the woman’s body is only a few years old and she had given birth shortly before being killed. The island’s Detective Inspector McKie (Ian McElhinney) considers the case closed, so Dr. Hamilton takes it upon herself to uncover the truth of what happened. Aided only by the skeptical Sgt. Dana Tulloch (Joanne Crawford), Dr. Hamilton begins to uncover the island’s sinister secrets involving an ancient religious sect, and even those closest to her.
The second feature film by Peter A. Dowling, Sacrifice had all the makings of a modern-day re-imagining of Robin Hardy’s cult classic, The Wicker Man–the British island setting, the mysterious death, the adherence to ancient religion, and the outsider attempting to piece it all together. Unfortunately Sacrifice falls short of the thrills and terrors found in The Wicker Man, though to be fair, it’s better than either the laughably awful remake of The Wicker Man or Hardy’s own re-imagining, The Wicker Tree. The film is capably directed by Dowling. David Grennan’s cinematography beautifully captures the unique landscapes. And every performance is strong, from Radha Mitchell’s commanding lead to the most minor supporting role. Yet all of the film’s strengths cannot overcompensate for its major flaw–a convoluted screenplay written by Dowling. The film is based on the 2009 novel by S. J. Bolton and, without having read the book, it’s difficult to say where the problems originate. It’s possible the 386-page novel was just as convoluted, or perhaps in attempting to adapt it into a 91-minute feature while remaining faithful to the source much was compromised. Either way, we’re left with a bit of a mess.
[Editor’s Note: Major spoilers follow]
An ancient religious sect known as the Trows reside on the island. They believe themselves to be a superior warrior race of men who must breed with lowly human women in order to produce offspring. Once the child is born, the mother is sacrificed in a ritual nine days after the birth. As part of the ritual, the father and baby drink the mother’s blood, and the father then eats her heart. Her body is then branded with sacred prayers before being buried. (For better or worse, viewers never get to actually see this ritual being carried out; there’s little gore in the film.) Nearly every male character in the film is either a part of the sect or at least has knowledge of it, including Detective Inspector McKie. And yet it is still presented as a secret society on this small island. They go to great lengths to hide their activities, falsifying the cause of death for all the women they kill in elaborate ways. If it’s such a small island and nearly everyone knows, why must they keep it a secret? And how could anyone who didn’t know not become suspicious of the fact that nearly every child-bearing wife has died around the time of birth over the decades?
Equally baffling are the motivations of Dr. Hamilton’s husband Duncan, who is a reluctant member the sect and who never wanted to see his wife killed. If he and his wife were to conceive a male child, she’d have to be killed in the ritual. If they didn’t ever conceive, Duncan said the sect would kill her and get him a new wife. He reveals that he’s the cause of her miscarriages, injecting himself with an experimental male contraceptive he claimed to be insulin. Somehow the fact that Dr. Hamilton continued to miscarry allowed Duncan to make a deal with the sect to keep her safe and they could adopt a baby into the sect. Why that option is only available because of her miscarriages isn’t addressed, nor is the fact that Duncan loves her enough to want to save her life, but is willing to let her suffer the pain and horror of losing four babies.
Once you start to pull at the many loose seams of this film, it unravels quickly. It starts strong with the promise of tension and mystery, and devolves into a tedious exercise into poor storytelling decisions. At first I legitimately feared for Dr. Hamilton’s survival, but ultimately my only fear was the film wasn’t going to end any time soon.
Sacrifice opens in New York at the IFC Center and on demand via all digital platforms on April 29, 2016.