The woods are scary. This isn’t a concept that’s too difficult to grasp. Nature scares people. The uncontrollable elements scare people. Bears scare people. Witches scare people. All these things are in the woods and, unless I’m with at least three other people who run slower than me, I won’t be. However, if your inclination is to tell me that I’m more afraid of myself than I am the forest, not only would you be correct, you’d be the perfect audience for Lorcan Finnegan’s debut feature, Without Name.
When Eric (Alan McKenna) is contracted to survey a land known as gun ainm (literal translation being, you guessed it, “without name”), he finds himself spending more time investigating the area’s history than the land itself. Leaving behind a wife (Olga Wehrly) and teenaged son (Brandon Maher) but accompanied by his colleague and occasional mistress, Olivia (Niamh Algar), Eric becomes obsessed with the land’s previous owner, William Devoy (Brendan Conroy), who left behind a field guide to the surrounding forests, its plants, and potentially supernatural properties before succumbing to its powers, where he was found catatonic and nearly dead with no concrete explanation.
Undisturbed but morbidly curious, Eric’s grasp on reality grows thin as the mysteries surrounding Devoy’s current mental state and explorations in the forest pose more questions than they answer. Meanwhile, Eric and Olivia become close with a traveling local, Gus (James Browne), who tries to open their minds to the possibilities of nature as sentient beings that communicate with each other in a complicated ecosystem beyond human comprehension.
Bursting with an energy rarely seen outside of a debut feature, Without Name is a challenging, unnerving, and ultimately rewarding film about the relationship between man and the surroundings which he cannot control through distinctly human concepts like infrastructure and property lines. Finnegan, with cinematographer Piers McGrall, uses the camera to breathe a life into these woods that’s rarely seen in the movies. The film’s most visceral moments have a tendency to erase the barrier between viewer and screen, leaving you as disoriented as the characters you’re watching.
While we’re on the topic of character, it took watching this movie to realize how long it’s been since I’ve seen a horror movie with three-dimensional human beings to root for. I can’t emphasize enough how refreshing it was to hear people talking on-screen without desperately wanting one of them to be murdered mid-sentence. By avoiding the “creepy local” trope entirely and allowing the horror to come from within Eric and as a result of his surroundings, Finnegan is able to foster these distinct relationships amongst the characters that imbue his film with a sense of purpose with which the worst horror films don’t even bother.
However, that same energy and attention to detail that characterize the best debut features are occasionally offset by a narrative structure commonly associated with first films on the negative end of that spectrum. For all of its risks, Without Name‘s screenplay sometimes slips into more telegraphed territory, which actively works against the mystery that makes this film a lot of what it is. All the more disappointing because the film’s highs are high. It’s a confident debut that sometimes doesn’t trust itself to go the distance and shed any semblance of the reference points and visual cues that most first-time directors rely on to find an audience.
Similarly, Without Name has a tendency to bare its micro-budget teeth that no amount of editing can hide, including a third act that, while visually stunning and genuinely breathtaking to behold, utilizes overly simplistic (read: cheap) setups to get its point across, including an altercation between two nude men in a forest that’s probably a lot goofier than it was intended to be.
These are all minor gripes, though. The bottom line of Without Name is that it’s daring, it’s unnerving, it’s gorgeously shot, impeccably scored, masterfully edited, and only occasionally clunky. I predict nothing but good things for director Lorcan Finnegan and his writing partner, Garret Shanley, who are well on their way to being the next Adam Wingard/Simon Barrett one-two punch of a writer who understands the genre with a bold vision, and a director who’s able to manifest that vision into something that’s not only watchable, but potentially transcendent. In its closing shot, Finnegan confirms that he already knows the one thing most horror directors tend to avoid: killing your characters isn’t the best or only way to scare your audience, as there are many, many fates worse than death.