If the very first thing onscreen at the beginning of a film is a warning that viewers are about to partake in scenes unsuitable for the photosensitive and/or epileptic, my expectations of the film automatically skyrocket, especially if said film purports to be “an eco-terror version of Polanski’s The Tenant.” Any project warning you right off the bat of its potentially adverse mind-bending effects, as Lorcan Finnegan’s psychological drama-thriller Without Name does, had better be prepared to back its claims with some seriously stylish psychedeliparanoia.
Finnegan’s feature, which screens this week as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Vanguard roster, centers around Eric (Alan McKenna), an unhappily-married land surveyor who uses his profession as an escape from the tension at home and the cold sterility of urban life. Drawn to the peace and calm of more natural settings, Eric accepts a mysterious assignment in a dense forest area, unaware that something sinister awaits him in the woods…
…I just wish I could tell you what that something sinister was. I swear I sat through the whole movie, but I still have no idea; unfortunately it kept losing me, thanks to a frustratingly uneven plot. It felt like indecision: “Are we making a drama, or a thriller? Or–or horror! Yeah, yeah, we wanna be scary sometimes, too!” Quite frankly, since the vast majority of its time (literally two-thirds of the film) is spent exploring the onscreen human relationships with only implications of the supernatural until its final half hour, this film never should have been touted as “eco-horror” or anything horror, really; I think having gone into it without those expectations would have made it a more successful film from my perspective.
That’s the bad news, though.
The good news is, there is good news: its style and use of unconventional narrative techniques save this film from being a waste of my perfectly good evening. Visually and atmospherically, there are some excellent things going on in Finnegan’s film; its slow moments give the viewer time to appreciate the director’s thoughtful eye and to take in the visual metaphors throughout (such as the tightly-framed shots of steel beams glistening cold in the urban sun, never intersecting, much like Eric’s own disconnection with his wife and son, and with the city itself). Maybe it’s not exactly the psychedelic explosion one might expect from the warning at the beginning of the film, but I found myself applauding its conservative use of the stroboscopic sequences; not overdoing it made those scenes much more emphatic. The strategic use of sound and of the film’s score to further heighten the sense of burgeoning paranoia is, hands down, the savior of this film for me. Nagging drones crescendo and weird cacophonic sound collages lend an air of warning and urgency to corresponding scenes. (Also, I appreciated that there was no obligatory synth-laden soundtrack, as is the trend nowadays; as much as I normally enjoy these types of scores, it’s refreshing to hear an experimental soundtrack that succeeds while steering clear of that trend.)
Maybe I wasn’t particularly blown away by anything happening in the plot, but I didn’t find Without Name to be completely without merit. Technical skill, style and a lack of self-indulgence are its strengths, but if you’re sitting down to watch it expecting to scared (and aren’t fazed by creepy noises), you’re in for a long wait. For film studies nerds only.