J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

SIFF ’17: Without Name

We’re not psychiatrists mind you, but we still caution against combining a mid-life crisis with an isolated locale and a satchel full of psychedelic drugs. Eric the independent land surveyor is a good case study. His latest job will take him deep into the eco-heart of darkness in Lorcan Finnegan’s Without Name (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

Eric’s marriage is on the rocks, partly because his wife more or less knows he is having an affair with his grad student-intern, Olivia. Their relationship has also been strained lately, but he still needs her assistance on his latest gig. His practice would ordinarily be too small for a job of this size, but his corporate client appreciates his reputation for “discretion.”

Fortunately, the company found him digs in an ominous looking cottage, left vacant since the previous tenant went insane and disappeared into the woods. He left behind a hand-written volume on the power of trees that looks like it holds plenty of relevant warnings, but Eric is not paying attention. He is too preoccupied with his suspicions regarding Gus, the mushroom-tripping camper-dwelling drifter, whom Olivia is so obviously attracted to. Both the surveyor and his assistant have some strange “lost time” incidents in the woods, but nothing they can’t shake off, until Eric overindulges in the ‘shrooms, throwing open his doors of perception (and letting in evil Mother Nature).

If the return of Twin Peaks is not enough to scare you out of the woods, Without Name ought to finish the job. It is smarter and more disciplined than The Hallow, the last previous uncanny forestry horror film to hail from Ireland, but you could say it is moody to a fault. Generally, it is always a better genre strategy to suggest than to explicitly show, but Finnegan maybe pushes the point too far. Still, he masterfully sets the scene and stokes the foreboding vibe. Cinematographer Piers McGrail and the sound effects team also contribute distinctively creepy work that really helps establish and maintain the film’s disturbingly surreal tone.

It is indeed frightfully convincing to watch Alan McKenna’s Eric slowly descend into paranoia and madness. Even in the early scenes, he is so tightly wound, you could get a migraine just from looking at him. On the other hand, Niamh Algar plays Olivia with such shallow petulance, it is hard to buy into their relationship, especially considering Eric’s wife is played by the striking looking Olga Wehrly (granted, she is frosty with him, but she has good reason).

Regardless, Finnegan and company display a real mastery of mood and horror mise en scene. Arguably, the old nutter’s treatise on trees is one of the best books-within-a-horror-movie since the nefarious kiddie picture-book in The Babadook. If Without Name ever becomes a sleeper hit, an Irish specialty publisher should release a facsimile edition. Regardless, it boasts some truly impressive visuals and sound design, but a little bit more narrative focus wouldn’t have killed anyone. Recommended for patient fans of eco-pagan horror, Without Name screens this Sunday (5/28) and the following Friday (6/2) and Sunday (6/4), as part of the 2017 SIFF.

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