Expecting a Gaelic romp in the woods, Judge George Hatch bought a brand new pair of brogues. He promptly returned them and used the money to mellow out with a bottle of good Scotch.
"Normal rules don't apply around here."—Ruaridh, manager of the Moor Lodge Wilderness Retreat
Except for its mercifully short running time, The Last Great Wilderness is an independent film that has little going for it. Two slim plots interweave, and could have been made into decent half-hour episodes for television. These days, half-hour shows usually run slightly over 20 minutes, with advertising filling out the rest. So what happens during the remaining 55 minutes of the film? Not much.
Facts of the Case
The Last Great Wilderness starts promisingly as Charlie (Alastair Mackenzie) sits in a diner, morosely contemplating the shortest route to Skye Island, just off the Scottish coast. A pop star stole Charlie's fiancè, so he plans to go to the island and burn down the man's house. Charlie is suddenly accosted by Vicente (Jonathan Phillips) who needs to get somewhere fast, and Scotland is as good a place as any. Vicente slept with the wife of a pop star who has dispatched two contract killers to track him down. Apparently, the pop star said, "Bring Me the Balls of Vicente What-His-Name," because the men have been hired to film the castration and return with the goods. After several formulaic diversions—running out of gas, getting lost, et cetera—Charlie and Vicente arrive at the Moor Lodge Wilderness Retreat where you can "Leave Your Troubles Behind."
This, of course, is where trouble lies ahead. A paranoid guest, Claire (Victoria Smurfit), tells them there's no room at the inn. Manager Ruaridh (David Hayman), however, invites them to stay the night asking, "Do you want two rooms, or are you homosexual?" They opt for two rooms. Other residents include Moran (Louise Irwin), a nymphomaniac "in recovery" who's already eyeballing the tempting new arrivals. Paul (John Comerford), a former priest, is on sabbatical because he had "problems with his faith," and there are hints that he's a pedophile. He still enjoys playing paddleball with Claire's pre-teen son, but found that "masturbation has changed my life." Ellie, a near corpse in a wheelchair, founded the retreat. She sings a dirge that provokes everyone to weep uncontrollably, and applaud enthusiastically before she's euthanized. Then there's Flora (Jane Stenson), a ghost that only Vicente can see. And she provides the link to the other plotline.
Flora was the daughter of Magnus (Ewan Stewart), the only outsider to this "retreat." Magnus is a down-to-earth deer hunter by trade, guilt-ridden by his daughter's death. He came home late one night and found their house in flames, with Flora, "her hair on fire," pounding at the window. She was in therapy with Ruaridh, and Magnus is convinced he drove her to suicide by self-immolation. Now he lives in a trailer, parked among the charred ruins of his house, and he's planning some kind of revenge. Magnus's revelations prompt Charlie and Vicente to explore Moor Lodge and discover it's actually a sex clinic, with its own "orgone accumulator." According to Ruaridh, orgone is the sexual energy that flows through the body, and the apparatus draws it out to relieve stress. Even more disturbing are the photographs and videotapes that the two men find in Ruaridh's workroom. His "patients" are posed naked in provocative positions—and there are two freshly developed pictures of Charlie and Vicente sleeping. They're both overhead shots, so Ruaridh must have peepholes all over the lodge to satisfy his own voyeuristic tendencies. Perhaps, he should consider spending some time in the "accumulator." The tapes are comprised of his private consultations with members of the group, one of whom was Flora.
There's obviously a lot going on here, and it sounds very complex. Unfortunately, nothing really comes together. Two men have a pop stars and women in common, but their stories never mesh. There are two houses: one about to be burned down, while the other has already been destroyed by fire. Again, there's no connection. Only Vicente can see Flora's ghost, and he even finds one of her shoes in the rubble of Magnus's house. There's an all-too-clever tie-up here between the deaths of Flora and Vicente, but it's purely deus ex machina. Charlie should have had the connection to the house and Flora. Other motifs, such as butterflies and moths (drawn to flame), go nowhere. I felt that Ruaridh's Moor Lodge Wilderness Retreat was a last-ditch attempt to draw an audience with controversial characters such as the above-mentioned nympho, pedophile, voyeur, and other characters with psychosexual bents. Moran easily seduces Vicente, but he can't perform to her expectations because Flora's apparitions traumatize him. Masturbator extraordinaire, Paul, asks Charlie if he comforts himself in a similar one-handed fashion, and reluctantly, Charlie admits to doing so. Paul looks annoyed, then very angry when Ruaridh interrupts their conversation. Wake up, Paul! Charlie is at least 20 years older than what you're looking for. The only connection here is cheap titillation.
So: there's about 40 minutes of intriguing and potentially suspenseful plotlines. The Last Great Wilderness has been compared to The Wicker Man, but don't fall for it. Yes, there's a bonfire to celebrate Ellie's passing, and the group walks barefoot over the burning ashes. But there's no paganism involved—just a bunch of sexed-up and deluded people under Ruaridh's control. There's also too much gibberish and psychobabble, too many furtive glances, and everyone gets to cry alone at least once. The anti-climactic scene is an overlong cross-dressing ball, and it's a real drag (sorry!) with cheesy decorations and a terrible rock band. With his moustache and goatee, Vicente looks especially ridiculous with eyeliner and lipstick—and it isn't even color coordinated with his party dress.
I think the problem lies in the screenplay credited to four people: Michael Tait, Gillian Berry, Alastair Mackenzie, and director David Mackenzie with "thanks to the cast for their contributions." There are also credits for a Script Assistant, Editor, and Supervisor. Where in hell were these people? Somebody had a good idea, but "too many cooks." proves true once again. Alastair Mackenzie and Jonathan Phillips (Titanic) are very good in the leads, as are Ewan Stewart (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) and Victoria Smurfit (The Beach) in supporting roles. I think they must have had genuinely scripted lines to rehearse and deliver. David Hayman (Vertical Limit) is overly sinister as Ruaridh, and if he had a moustache, I'm sure he would have twirled it. The cinematography by Simon Dennis is absolutely spectacular. He has an excellent eye for composition and was an asset to this production. It made me want to visit Scotland just for the scenery. Surprisingly, this was Dennis's first film, followed by a short titled Iota and Number One, Longing. Number Two, Regret, neither of which are available on DVD. TLA's anamorphic transfer is pristine and the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is equally fine, and I did enjoy the dreamlike score by The Pastels. I only wish TLA had provided subtitles. I had no problem understanding Mackenzie and Phillips, but had to replay too many scenes, trying to understand what some of the other actors were saying. There are no extras, but you can watch trailers for other films being touted as part of the TLA Releasing International Film Festival: Moon Child, Box 507, 2LDK and Godforsaken!
Director David Mackenzie's follow-up film was the highly-praised Young Adam that earned an "NC-17" rating for "explicit sexual content." There's not even an "NR" on the Wilderness keep case, but I would give it an "R" for language, subject matter, two sex scenes, and full frontal male nudity. I guess you can justify the latter in Vicente's case. The two contract killers eventually catch him, and fulfilling their assignment suggests: the more you have, the more you have to lose. The Last Great Wilderness was shot entirely in Scotland, and TLA cites it as the "Country of Origin." The Internet Movie Database, however, credits the film as a British-Danish co-production. I assume the Scottish government wanted to keep a low profile on this one, and I can understand why.
The Last Great Wilderness had a lot of potential, but lost focus and failed to unify two interesting plotlines. There's too much padding, and not enough coordination of ideas. If the director had exercised more control over the improvisational "contributions" from the cast, and tightened scenes instead of expanding them, the film might have been a unique psychological thriller. As it stands, there's nothing at all "great" about this Wilderness.
Guilty! Short, sweet, and to the point. So I won't pad out this decision with 55 additional words.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
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