TIFF 2016 Review: Without Name
For as long as people have wanted to be scared, the woods have been a boundless resource for providing the creeps. No matter how often the horror genre goes through fads and subgenres, Mother Nature always remains. This year alone we’ve seen horror films like The Witch, Shelly, The Forest, and Blair Witch use the backwoods as a setting for frights, and now we have another film giving it a try: Lorcan Finnegan’s Without Name, a folkloric tale from Ireland that finds yet another poor soul getting swallowed up by whatever’s lurking beyond the trees.
That poor soul is David (Alan McKenna), a land surveyor from the city whose relationship with his wife and teenage son is a tenuous one. David takes on a new job offered to him by a corporate client to survey a large forest in the countryside. He accepts, leaving his family for several weeks to go live in a cottage that’s both quaint and eerie in equal measure. Upon arriving, it doesn’t take long for David to notice something’s off-kilter, as he begins seeing a silhouetted figure observing him from afar. The discovery of a book written by the cottage’s previous owner, filled with strange, elaborate notes and drawings, combined with David’s employer acting cagey whenever he asks about the project, only increases his paranoia and anxiety.
The late arrival of Olivia (Niahm Algar), David’s young research assistant and mistress, does no favours to help alleviate his stress, nor does the appearance of Gus (James Browne), a local who fills David in on the cottage’s last occupant going mad with theories about the trees communicating in their own language. That wacky idea of a coded language hidden in nature winds up becoming David’s obsession, as he delves further into the book he found and suspects Olivia and Gus are working together to cause him misery. It’s obvious that David’s deteriorating mental state might be the result of some sort of supernatural predator going after his weaknesses, rather than a man caving in from the pressures surrounding his personal and professional life. And as he comes closer to the brink of sanity, the shadow person trailing him starts becoming more of a constant presence, as if it’s waiting for the right moment of weakness to strike.
On a stylistic level, one word comes to mind while watching Without Name: derivative. The film’s ultra-slick imagery, courtesy of cinematographer Piers McGrail, and punishing sound design by Aza Hand bring to mind Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist along with the hallucinogenic visuals of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (the film opens with a warning for viewers with photosensitive epilepsy). But when Finnegan uses one of those film’s tricks, like trying to subtly distort the frame the way Von Trier did for his nature shots, he lets the camera focus directly on them, making it impossible to not notice what he’s doing. It feels like he’s sanding off the edges of his influences, creating a more palatable, audience-friendly version, the same kind of digestible experimentation that a distributor like A24 has specialized in over the years. Perhaps a better title for this would have been Without Teeth.