2021 Fantasia Film Festival Festival Coverage

2021 Fantasia Film Festival: Don’t Say Its Name ★ ½

A horror film is a horror film, except when it’s not.

Directed by Rueben Martell, Don’t Say Its Name is a horror and thriller mash-up that unfittingly tries its hand on pointing to a political issue that still gets overlooked by some. Thus, while co-writing Don’t Say Its Name with Gerald Wexler, Martell aims at an end-product that does not contain its strengths in simply being scary without a motive. On the contrary, the duo attempt to show an issue that is not well-represented in the contemporary media, namely the issues natives of a land face.

The story focuses on Betty (Madison Walsh) who deputizes a ranger called Stacey (Sera-Lys McArthur) in an emergency. The two partner up to uncover mysterious deaths-slash-murders that take place in their small, snowy town. Yet, as the cases get more and more difficult to explain, the entirety of the forces gets confused as to how such deaths are possible without a supernatural identity.

As a parallel to their goals, a mining company is on the brink of destroying the ancestral lands of the indigenous people in the region for the company’s own profit. This part of the story mostly remains secondary and mainly functions for the portrayal of the systematic racism and unfairness against indigenous people that occurs on a regular basis. Therefore, most of the depth of the film comes from this part, which succeeds in delivering its message since it’s neither too subtle nor too obvious, meaning that the story does not push a political agenda down in the face of the audience, but calmly portrays a dark scenario that is real to the tiniest details, leaving the audience to figure out for themselves what a lot of people have faced and still face on their daily lives. 

The snowy texture of the town and the otherwise darker color palette creates a Fargo-esque atmosphere that is both tense and mostly calm. Combined with great lighting and overall good visuals, the film looks quite good. This is accompanied by a soundtrack that has some good songs –  the song that plays during the end credits is especially worth mentioning. It is not the strongest soundtrack that one would come across in the genre, but it nevertheless does a great job.

Returning to the story, Betty is the type that deeply concerns herself with the wellbeing of her town, while Stacey is the type that prefers solitude and acts out while being distant to people. On top of the characters being quite the clichés, their teaming-up story is just as much of a cliché with Stacey being reluctant at first and then accepting the offer, or rather, the order.

“Have you been drinking?” 

For some reason, Stacey enthusiastically asks this question to the witnesses in the bloody and overwhelming crime scenes. It must somehow have a meaning to the investigation, such as the scientifically proven fact that alcohol causes individuals to entirely forget how and why bloodshed happened – which is very unlikely. That kind of simple dialogue unfortunately takes its toll on the storytelling as soon as the story sets off, and does not improve much throughout the relatively short runtime. Unfortunately, the acting gets overly dramatic here and there which causes the dialogue to stand out and struggle even further. 

At times, it feels like as if Don’t Say Its Name is trying to build suspense by withholding information, which is not necessarily rare in the genre, as one would rather be worried or cautious about the unknown first. But, still, it is implemented in a way that the audience just has to wait patiently for the plot to lead somewhere. When it does go somewhere, the story in itself is well-rounded on those terms, yet the direction is pointlessly vague at times.

As such, Don’t Say Its Name is a film that has a strong message both in terms of how uncommon the issue is mentioned in films, and also in its unique implementation. Nevertheless, the issues that plague the film ranging from storytelling to dialogue end up creating a piece that gets stale quickly. It might still be an interesting watch based on its message, also given that the film does not drag for the most part, but all else unfortunately falls apart pretty quickly.

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