'Without Name': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
'Without Name'
A restrained but atmospheric dose of sylvan shivers.

A land surveyor gets lost in the malevolent woods in this moody eco-horror chiller from debuting Irish director Lorcan Finnegan.

A slow-burn environmental horror movie saturated with psychological dread and an enveloping sense of place, Without Name marks a confident first feature from Irish filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan. While the pace may be too unhurried and many of the conventional tropes too understated for mainstream genre junkies, patient VOD audiences will appreciate the careful grounding in realistic drama that builds via unsettling visual cues to accelerating hallucinatory hell in the final half-hour.

Eric (Alan McKenna) is an independent land surveyor whose unhappy Dublin home life is sketched economically in a brief scene depicting a silent breakfast shared with his terse wife (Olga Wehrly) and uncommunicative preteen son (Brandon Maher). Even before it's revealed that Eric is enmeshed in a relationship with his student assistant Olivia (Niamh Algar), who's impatient for him to bail on his marriage and commit to her, the sobering veil of guilt he wears is quite apparent.

Invisible auras are a big factor in Garret Shanley's screenplay, which swiftly drops Eric in a rural woodland setting where he's collecting data for a dodgy developer (Morgan C. Jones). Cinematographer Piers McGrail plants initially subtle suggestions that the trees are sentient beings, a theory expanded upon in a handwritten book by Devoy, the mysterious owner of the isolated cottage where Eric is staying. Shifty locals at the village pub reveal that Devoy went crazy, while itinerant caravan dweller Gus (James Browne) explains that his writings were fueled by experimentation with natural hallucinogens gathered from the woods.

Those woods have never been properly charted or named, hence the film's title and Eric’s commission for a development that appears not to have passed through the required permit channels. As he and Olivia attempt to carry out the job, they are distracted first by the palpable creepiness of the forest, then by unexplained sabotage of their equipment and by a woozy interlude during which Gus encourages them to experience the spiritual release provided by his mushroom stash.

The story's setup is similar to Corin Hardy's The Hallow from last year, another horror movie in which an Irish woodland retreat turns very nasty. But whereas that film yielded an amusingly excessive cornucopia of genre grotesquerie and superstitious Gaelic mumbo jumbo, Finnegan and Shanley deploy conversational references to treacherous faeries and mythological demons strictly as background texture. Instead, the director amps up the anxiety via a rumbling ambient soundscape, eerie electronic music and sinister shifts in lighting.

If the narrative ultimately seems thin, not to mention somewhat familiar and formulaic, the quiet menace of an ancient natural world under threat is nicely modulated. The actors all are strong, particularly McKenna, who conveys the terrifying isolation of Eric's paranoia as he retreats further and further from reality, a process echoed in McGrail's arresting images of altered-state confinement.

Production company: Lovely Productions
Cast: Alan McKenna, Niamh Algar, James Browne, Olga Wehrly, Brandon Maher, Morgan C. Jones, Brendan Conroy, Donncha Crowley
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Screenwriter: Garret Shanley
Producer: Brunella Cocchiglia
Executive producer: Rory Gilmartin
Director of photography: Piers McGrail
Production designer: Jeannie O'Brien
Costume designer: Niamh Buckley
Music: Neil O’Connor, Gavin O'Brien
Editor: Tony Cranstoun
Casting: Thyrza Ging, Louise Kiely
Sales: XYZ Films, M-Appeal
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Vanguard)

93 minutes