My notes on The Ones You Didn’t Burn
A short, tight, impressive first feature from director-writer-actor Elise Finnerty, who covers a remarkable amount of territory – grief, loss, addiction, generational guilt, misogyny, compounded historical injustice, witchery, small town assholery, the vastness of the sea and the wealth of the land – in 77 minutes. Nathan (Nathan Wallace), who handles his sobriety chip early on with something like desperation, has fled his home town and the farm his father owns, and at least made an effort to get straight but cutting himself off from the past. He ignores increasingly strange voicemails from his father, ranting about the women from whom his grandfather stole the land, darkly noting ‘they never forgot’. The title, a Thoreau quote (‘I believe men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung’) and a later note as to where the women who settled this land came from establishes that we’re in vengeful witch territory – a theme in American literature as far back as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and resurrected often in horror movies which (unlike this one) open with a defiant beldame tied to a stake chanting a curse as the flames rise.
When Nathan’s father commits suicide, Nathan and his uptight suit sister Mirra (Jenna Sander) have to come home – he’d like to get the funeral, the will and clearing the house done inside a day, while she’s more practical but also working through her own issues which – we sense – have always had to take a back-seat to Nathan’s more obvious problems. All the work on the farm is being done by Alice (Finnerty) and her sister Scarlett (Estelle Girard Parks), siblings who are in perfect sync though Alice does most of the talking while Scarlett contributes meaningful looks and punchlines – they admit that they’re descended from the witches Nathan’s ancestors persecuted and stole from, and have openly been playing a long game (‘we never forgot’) to get back what was theirs. Meanwhile, Nathan falls back in with the worst possible friend – toxic Greg (Samuel Dunning), who has graduated from party dick to weed-grower and bristles with genial hostility, forcing drink and drugs on Nathan (who, admittedly, falls off the wagon of his own accord) and snarling about his lack of sexual success with any of the women (‘witches’ would be one of the more polite terms he uses).
His man-bun loose and his bicycle abandoned for a belching truck, Nathan reverts to his worst self but also takes up and amplifies all his father’s paranoia as he’s tormented by nightmare visions of a woman rising from the sea (evoking Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Les Demoniaques) and gets a Children of the Corn feeling about the crops growing on his own spread. It doesn’t fill in all the blanks, mostly because Finnerty sticks close to the limited POV of a character who may actually be minor footnote to the greater story being told through hints and echoes – but note how perceptive the film is about Nathan’s personality issues even as it empathises with the particular melancholy chore of sorting through a dead parent’s belongings and the little crisis that comes when winding up decades of family history tied to a property that’s likely to be sold or lost or let go. Finnerty takes a risk by casting herself, but she’s an interesting presence – tall and red-headed, expressing witchy rapport with other women – and suitably lively/beguiling/dangerous.
Here’s the FrightFest listing.
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