Don't Say Its Name


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Don't Say Its Name
"Director Rueben Martell also makes great use of the snowy forest setting."

It’s a chill, dark night out in the woods in Alberta when Kharis (Sheena Kaine) decides to walk home by herself. In a horror movie this doesn’t bode well, but Kharis isn’t used to being deterred by such things. It’s different for her. She’s a local and a member of the First Nations. She’s at home here, with no reason to expect a threat.

The truck, like its driver, is an outsider. It approaches at speed, striking her before she has a hope of getting away; dragging her (which has a particular resonance for people of colour in North America) before leaving her for dead. Was it deliberate? It’s certainly convenient for WEC, the company against which she had been leading protests, the company which wants to strip mine tribal land. But with Kharis’ death, something else awakens – something which may prove to be a far more dangerous adversary.

Developed by indigenous people and rooted in traditional tales – in all their ambiguity – Don’t Say Its Name draws on real life conflicts over land rights, the duty of stewardship and the necessities of economic survival in places where unemployment – especially among the young – is desperately high. Although nominally a horror film (it premiered at Fantasia it doesn’t feature any more gore than the average thriller and the detective story that takes us much of its running time should give it plenty of mainstream appeal. In fact, the gore that we see resembles nothing so much as the aftermath of a hunt, which makes sense, because that’s essentially what it stems from – just not with humans doing the hunting.

There are certain signs – a strange odour, a black bird seen circling overhead – which quickly prompt police officer Mary (Madison Wash) and ranger Stacey (Sera-Lys McArthur) to suspect that something beyond the mundane is at work. Exactly what it is, or how to stop it (and, more troubling, the question of whether or not they should stop it) remains in question, however. Then there’s the mystery of who was driving the truck that hit Kharis. Work on the mining project means that there are a lot of strangers in town. Stacey has a run-in with one of them which feels less important to the plot than it is as an opportunity to give indigenous women, after centuries of objectification, the opportunity to enjoy a sharply delivered response. It’s no less satisfying as a result.

What starts off tightly plotted and full of ideas loses its way a little, later on, struggling to tie all the threads together whilst maintaining its pace. It doesn’t do enough to explain the complex nature of the entity involved to non-indigenous viewers unfamiliar with related stories, though whether or not it should is another question – it would be nice to see First Nations filmmakers entirely free to tell their stories without such considerations, but unfortunately some concessions may be necessary to access finance, and over-explanation is less problematic that some of the other things funders have been known to demand.

Whatever the viewer’s background, the presence of supernatural threat and the need for justice are clear, and the two female leads are both compelling and sympathetic in their different ways even if (some things are the same in every cultural context) they don’t always get along. Director Rueben Martell also makes great use of the snowy forest setting. To experience this jus as a monster movie is still to enjoy a fun ride. To appreciate its deeper resonance, well, that makes the difference between three stars and four.

Reviewed on: 23 Aug 2021
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After a suspicious accident takes the life of an environmental activist, an ancient spirit is reborn outside a small northern town.

Director: Rueben Martell

Writer: Rueben Martell, Gerald Wexler

Starring: Sera-Lys McArthur, Samuel Marty, Julian Black Antelope, Tom Carey, Madison Walsh, Griffin Powell-Arcand, Catherine Gell

Year: 2021

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: Canada

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