Without Name, the debut feature from Lorcan Finnegan (director of acclaimed short film Foxes starring Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), tells a familiar tale. However, its executed with enough panache to make it worth seeking out. Alan McKenna stars as “part-time adulterer, full-time curmudgeon” Eric, an English land-surveyor hired to examine a mysterious forest named Gan Ainm just outside Dublin. His employers seem shady and the locals refer to the patch of land as being mysterious – explaining it derived its title from the Irish words for “without name”. Lonely, Eric invites his student and lover, Olivia (Niamh Algar – winner of the rising star award at ADIFF for her role), to assist him with his research. However, slowly his insanity begins to unravel, particularly upon discovering the man who previously lived in his cottage went insane also studying Gan Ainm.
Although Without Name flirts in passing with socio-political subtext – the recession, big business destroying the environment – it’s not really what the movie is about. It’s more an exercise in style drawing upon ideas seen before in movies. It plays like a heady blend of Corin Hardy’s eco/Irish fairy-tale The Hallow, the mushroom fuelled acid-trip of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England and the psychological thrills of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. While this could be interpreted as derivative, Finnegan – particularly for a debut filmmaker – displays a sizable amount of talent creating an intoxicatingly creepy atmosphere.
Shot on location in Glendalough, Finnegan – along with cinematographer Piers McGrail (Let Us Prey) – manages to wring a vast amount of sublime tension out of his woodland setting. The frame is filled with trees, making the forest feel menacing and endless. They play with sun-light, creating an other-worldly feeling. Even the sound-editing at certain sections – such as when Eric is stabbing his land-surveying equipment into the ground – evokes the sensation of the woods being this one entity that is pained by human interaction, actively rebelling against it.
Without Name also features some lovely incidental details. It really conveys in its early passages how boring and arduous the task of land-surveying a secluded area can be. The interactions regarding Irish myths between Eric and the locals, including hippie stoner Gus (James Browne), feel eerie but realistic. Also, aside from a sudden jump between the second and third act, Eric’s descent into madness is nicely down-played. There are very few typical jump scares. Instead, the movie relies on quiet menace – beginning with little moments such as his equipment failing to record data and escalating from there.
If Without Name has a problem, it’s in Eric as a protagonist. Although, well-played by McKenna and the character is interesting – he’s cheating on his wife, he’s an asshole loner – he isn’t very compelling. We never really learn enough about what makes him tick and thus he’s difficult to engage with. For two-thirds of the film, he’s depicted as a humourless, sad-sack, realist – very dedicated to the job he’s been sent to complete. Thus, in the last third, when he makes the jump to frolicking around the forest drugged out of his mind on mushroom tea, it feels a little jarring – especially when the supporting characters like Gus and Olivia are surprisingly well-drawn throughout.
However, this issue doesn’t affect the hypnotic, slow-burn flow of the film and perhaps even adds to the strange menace of Without Name. Are the woods targeting Eric? Do they have the capability to alter a person’s mind? Ultimately, Finnegan’s debut may not appeal to fans of the mainstream Blum House staple of horror. Yet, for fans of slower, slightly more art-house chillers, there is more than enough ingenuity in Without Name to make it worth a watch. Stephen Porzio