Wednesday 15 November 2017

We Don't Go Back #71: Without Name (2016)

Lorcan Finnegan must have seen A Field in England before embarking on the production of Without Name. The sense of menace imputed to an area of land that's not especially remote, as if it's a character in the drama, the use of stroboscopic effects to represent an altered state of consciousness, and the epic mushroom trips that lead to a sort of twisted enlightenment, they're all there. But all of these things are cosmetic.

All of my film essays necessarily give away plot details; some more than others. This one is most decidedly on the more side. 

About the wood.

Dublin surveyor Eric Maybury (Alan McKenna) is a quiet man with the sort of troubled family life that betrays itself in silences and averted glances, and a face that shows a world of worry. He's hired to survey a large woodland area not too far from the Irish capitol. In the film's least successful scenes, we discover that some aspect of the planned development is shady, that the buyers of the land don't want to garner attention. They're going to violate this land by building over it; hence the need for a small team of surveyors.

In his initial surveys, Eric feels a sense of unease. The woods change their appearance without even moving. Lighting changes and changes back. Something seems to be moving behind the trees. Eric's plumb line swings in a clockwise direction. He puts his hand on it, stops it swinging, and it just starts again, around and round.

The cottage where he's staying belonged to a man named Devoy (Brendan Conroy), who left behind an eclectic selection of books and an illustrated journal, on which he wrote the title The Meaning of Trees. On a trip to the local pub, Eric discovers from the locals that Devoy went mad, and is in an institution, and that the woodland area is called Gan Ainm, "Without Name" because no one has ever named it. He also meets Gus (James Browne), a man who lives in a caravan on the edge of the wood with a partiality for the psychedelic mushrooms that grow there.
It's not funny, Eric.
Soon after, Eric is joined by his assistant, a grad student called Olivia (Niamh Algar), who it turns out is having an affair with him, and who is growing increasingly impatient about what he's going to do with his failing marriage.

The survey continues. Equipment starts to be sabotaged. Data vanishes from the laptop. And the trees almost seem to be playing tricks on Eric and Olivia. I suppose that we're supposed to wonder if the strange nature of the woodland is in Eric's head, but early on, you see a scene, quite a pivotal one, where Olivia loses Eric entirely. He vanishes into the woodland, and amusement becomes annoyance becomes terror – except he was standing right next to her the whole time. And it's almost like he was absorbed into the wood without even realising.

Without Name concentrates on the details of the forest, creating a sense of unease through lighting, and through the trick of focussing on something that isn't in and of itself particularly uncanny long enough for it to become uncanny. And that's a difficult trick to pull off, but here it works.

The silhouetted figure in the woods that Eric sees, only Eric sees. And it's Eric who fades into the woodlands. It's not that we're meant to infer that it might be in Eric's head, it's more that the film implies that Eric has been somehow chosen by the wood, that he faces that quintessential folk horror fate: it was you they wanted all along ("they" being the trees here).
Psilocybin? I'll get you a pint of that.
A long-running strand of folklore that exists across Western Europe tells us that certain places are haunted by a supernatural guardian, a spirit who remains there until someone else takes its place. These places are always familiar, "known" places, the sort of place that people have walked on for a very long time, but which have a kind of outcast status, like a graveyard (with its Graveyard Watcher), or a haunted wood. And this is sort of a phenomenon that you find in Western Europe a lot, because there's nowhere in the British Isles or Western Europe that hasn't been in some way inhabited. The loneliest places we know aren't uninhabited, they're abandoned, and the wood of Gan Ainm is exactly that, an abandoned place that has a tutelary spirit. And the danger is not that you will suffer or even die at the guardian's hands. The danger is that you will take the guardian's place. In folklore, worse things do exist than death.

And so it is with Eric. After a bad trip caused by not knowing how many of Gus's mushrooms constitutes a safe dose, Eric begins to disintegrate. He drives Olivia away, and then begins to make an even more potent concoction, using Devoy's journal as a guide, hoping, I think, to understand what it is the trees want. This would be an idiotic move, if the trees hadn't already claimed him. But they have. He's lost. The current guardian wants to leave. Eric's fate was sealed the moment he entered the wood.
The broth.
Without Name isn't perfect. The scenes where Eric talks to his client are a little forced, as if screenwriter Garret Shanley had felt it absolutely necessary to add some more explanation as to why this guy is surveying the woods on his own, with the client (Morgan C. Jones) being little more than a generic Villainous Industrialist, and of course that distracts a little from the real reason why Eric is here.

Eric wants to escape. He wants to get away from his wife and son, and while Olivia is his lover, he begins to show how much he wants to get away from her too. And it's the strength of the film that McKenna really sells the quiet man who is so desperate for space that he engages in the same ill-advised psychedelic experiments that destroyed someone else, and winds up trapped in a worse place. And this is peak folk horror. It's also Lovecraftian, in all the good ways (yes, there are good ways to be Lovecraftian. Shut up): a crazy journal that looks a little bit like the Voynich Manuscript left in a woodland cottage, a land that has bound in it a cosmic power, a dark supernatural joke, a broken psyche begetting other broken psyches.