2016 Lorcan Finnegan Ireland 93 mins.
Irish film Without Name saw its US premiere on Saturday October 15, 2016, at the first Brooklyn Horror Film Festival—and it was without doubt one of the best films to play at the festival. Indeed, it just won awards for best feature, best director (Lorcan Finnegan), best cinematography (Piers McGrail), and best editing (Tony Cranstoun). I also want to single out Garret Shanley for a masterful screenplay and the three leads (Alan McKenna, Niamh Algar, and James Browne) for great performances.
Here’s the trailer:
Without Name follows Eric (McKenna), a land-developer, as he travels from what is clearly a soulless life in Dublin to a beautiful natural wilderness where he is measuring and assessing land. He’s under contract with a man (Morgan C. Jones) whom we only ever see on the screen of a laptop, but who, from what we do see, seems to be engaged in some shady land dealings. Eric soon learns from the locals that the land he’s surveying (which is called Gan Ainm, or Without Name) is private, but there’s also a growing sense in the film that this land belongs to no one. No one has ever been able to create a map of it; it persists in defying human efforts to control it.
Strange things start happening to Eric when he’s in the woods and then at his remote cottage: things go missing, he sees dark shapes between the trees, hears sounds. Normality is restored fleetingly when a woman named Olivia (Algar) comes to help Eric in his surveying, but even she starts to have odd experiences when enveloped in the verdant forest landscape.
Eric eventually begins to unravel the story of the man who used to live in the cottage he’s renting, a man named Devoy who was fascinated with botany and who wrote a journal called “Knowledge of Trees.” Devoy believed that trees and all plant life were fully as sentient as humans, that they communicated, had their own language, a “grammar of greenery.”[i] According to one local man, Gus (Browne), whom Eric and Olivia befriend, Devoy finally spent too much time in the woods and was found wandering around, his mind seemingly gone. Things irrevocably change for Eric after he, Gus, and Olivia do their own wandering in the woods after they take mushrooms; from there, the film spins into an uncanny strangeness—and, crucially, nature itself is at the very root of that strangeness.
Without Name is somewhat reminiscent of another recent Irish film, The Hallow (Corin Hardy 2015), although Without Name is much better—it’s the film I hoped The Hallow would be. Without Name is slower-paced, more interested in its woods as woods (not as mere background), and more wholly focused on the natural world as the source of what haunts humans.
Indeed, I have seen very few films that convey meaning so effectively through the mise-en-scène and, specifically, through amazing shots of nature that are never merely backdrop. The quality of Eric’s (urban, deadening) life, for instance, is conveyed visually in the first few scenes through the overwhelming greyness of the landscape with which the film opens, and from the attrition—the incredible smallness—of life within the frame. In the opening scene, Eric is standing in the vast greyness of a quarry, with no life discernible but his own as the camera pulls back and he gets smaller and smaller and smaller. And as he leaves his apartment in Dublin, a bit later, Eric glances at grey cement with a single plant shoot struggling up. These beautiful and meaningful scenes of urban life, and Eric’s life in particular, are sharply contrasted with the lushness and vibrant greenness of the woods he comes to survey, a place where another life than our own—plant life—vies with human life for dominance.
When Eric (and we) get to the woods (shot in the awe-inspiring Glendalough National Park in Co. Wicklow in Ireland), they are, literally, overwhelming, and Finnegan and cinematographer McGrail are simply brilliant at presenting the forest as a source of menace in and of itself: the trees swaying and cracking in the wind do indeed seem to become a palpable sentient force, and one can feel their indifference toward anything human. In the short video clip below, Finnegan makes the case that nature is not “evil”—just powerful—and Without Name does in fact convey that message perfectly.
From the moment Eric gets to the woods, in fact, I was struck by the incredible similarity of this film to Algernon Blackwood’s justly famous story, “The Willows” (1907), which similarly puts human characters in a vast landscape in which they are suddenly surrounded by trees swaying, bending, and creaking in the wind. Because they are really seeing nature for the first time, the characters in Blackwood’s story experience it as fully alien, and it’s only after experiencing nature as uncanny that they see strange figures looming darkly out of the willows—figures that seems an embodiment of nature’s own eerie power. The dark figures that lurk in Without Name are very much akin, I think, to the mysterious entities in “The Willows.”
It’s in the willows. It’s the willows themselves humming, because here the willows have been made symbols of the forces that are against us. – Blackwood, “The Willows”
There has been a huge resurgence of folk horror recently—a tradition in which Blackwood’s “The Willows” has a rightfully prominent place. Without Name is a near-perfect example of folk horror. Its (urban) protagonist travels to a rural, isolated, and profoundly alien location; the locals appear distinctly hostile (there’s the classic unfriendly encounter between Eric and the locals in a pub), and the locals certainly demonstrate beliefs dramatically at odds with Eric’s (and with all of those used to city life). Finally, Eric confronts, in the end, forces that are certainly “pagan,” in the sense that anything pagan has its ultimate origin in nature. What’s fascinating about Without Name, though, as opposed to much folk horror, is that there don’t seem to be any human “pagan” or nature-worshipping antagonists (no Wicker-Man-type human-sacrificing islanders, for instance). What Eric confronts, finally, is simply nature itself.
Without Name is a wonderful, beautiful and terrifying film that really puts nature at the center. In The Hallow, by contrast, what humans do remains central—and the final rather heavy-handed scene shows us a logging truck hauling away trees (and the destructive fungus along with them). Without Name is not (only) about humans’ destruction of the environment, but simply about how terrifying nature can be—how it can so easily overwhelm us, how it persistently shows us how puny we are in the midst of its vastness.
[i] Devoy was by no means crazy in holding these theories as two wonderful recent books demonstrate: Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola, Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence (Island Press, 2015), and Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How They Communicate (Greystone Books, 2015).