“It’s a non-specific kind of a place,” says a local of a mysterious Irish forest in Lorcan Finnegan’s debut feature “Without Name,” but he may as well be talking about the film itself, an eco-horror curiosity that defies not only genre expectations, but any discernible sense of purpose, too. Through a beguiling combination of chiaroscuro lighting, optical trickery, and a busy soundscape, Finnegan and his skilled technicians turn the woods into a verdant hell of swaying trees and sinking soil. But potent atmospherics alone are not enough to animate this green menace, which aspires to reflect the fraying psyche of a middle-aged land surveyor, but fails to suggest a complex and turbulent inner life. Finnegan strikes a match under wet leaves, resulting in a slow-burn thriller that will have trouble catching fire at arthouses, which are historically resistant to shockers.
Occupationally inclined to impose order on the world around him, Eric (Alan McKenna) is first seen surveying an arid, rocky expanse as the camera steadily zooms back to a God’s-eye-view. Could this be an external representation of his soul? Almost certainly, as is the concrete-and-glass monstrosity he shares with his wife (Olga Wherly) and teenage son (Brandon Maher), who both seethe with resentment. (So brittle is his marriage that the sound of his wife biting into a piece of toast reverberates through the house like percussion through an orchestra hall.) When he hops in his Jeep and sets off to a new job deep in the countryside, he can’t peel away from Dublin fast enough.
Contracted by a corporation that has selected him for his reputation for discretion, Alan settles into a cottage on the edge of a remote forest, which he’s surveying for an unknown and surely nefarious project. The previous owner of the cottage has left behind a handwritten manuscript called “Knowledge of Trees,” a hippy-dippy notebook of philosophical musings and organic potions inspired by his surroundings. When Alan strikes out to do his work, the forest comes alive with odd sounds and unexplained activity, including a silhouette that appears and disappears in the fog. The arrival of Olivia (Niamh Algar), his younger apprentice and lover, increases his stress rather than relieves it, and his descent into madness begins in earnest.
“Without Name” is an acid trip even before Alan steers into the curve by devouring a bag full of hallucinogens. Though the silhouetted figure is a consistent torment, Finnegan wants the entire forest to throb with life as if one supernatural being were controlling the whole area; in the “Knowledge of Trees” manuscript, there’s even speculation that the trees are speaking in a kind of sign language. Finnegan doesn’t seem that interested in generating tension or danger — or else he’s simply not good at it — but he goes hog-wild with dancing tree trunks and disorienting strobe effects while his sound designer, Aza Hand, cuts loose with unnatural science-fiction clicks and rattles.
The forest seems to feed off Alan’s anxiety, though Finnegan has written him as a midlife-crisis cliché: distant from his family, unsatisfied with his station in life, and turning to a much younger student as his lover. But “Without Name” has an environmental agenda, too, that has nothing to do with its milquetoast protagonist, and it’s here that Finnegan’s touch gets particularly heavy. “I don’t believe in the concept of private property,” one character says, adding that nobody really owns land, but just thinks they do. Later, Olivia laments their entire line of business: “We just cut everything up into salable little slabs.”
“Without Name” finds Mother Nature in open revolt, getting back in touch with the people who have lost touch with it. As days are lost and the compass spins, the film occasionally resembles “The Zone” in Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” wandering through a space that resists any attempts to rationalize it or make it more concrete. But for all of Finnegan’s evident filmmaking chops, the result is a banal rendering of nature, both of the human and dendrological kind. When it comes to addressing the mysteries of its forest and its hero, the answers are disappointingly straightforward.