Fantasia ’21 Review: ‘Don’t Say Its Name’ lacks scares, but has two compelling lead performances

It begins with a hit and run. A young woman walking home alone at night, on the phone with her mother, is run down by a pickup truck. It growls like a wild animal as it races toward her, and it ends her life viciously. This is the opening scene to Don’t Say Its Name, the new film by director Rueben Martell, and the beginning of a story of blood and vengeance on a first nations reserve.

The young woman in question, Kharis Redwater (Sheena Kaine), is a local activist. On the night she is killed, she is on the phone with her mother, explaining how she stood up to the local band leadership against selling drilling rights on tribal lands. What starts as a straightforward murder case turns nearly immediately supernatural as an unseen (but smelt and heard) force starts attacking the drilling company’s employees. It seems that if the people don’t protect the land, the land will protect itself.

If you think that those two things are connected, you are, of course, correct. Don’t Say Its Name doesn’t exactly break the mould when it comes to storytelling, but what is unique is that rather than an indigenous myth appropriated by white filmmakers, this film is made by and starring (mostly) indigenous people, which is more than a little refreshing.

Madison Walsh as Betty / Don't Say Its Name
Madison Walsh as Betty / Don’t Say Its Name

Unfortunately, the film does have problems. First and foremost, for a horror movie, it’s not that scary. Now, horror should never be defined explicitly by what scares you; this is a supernatural monster movie, and while there are a few effective jump scares, the monster itself is not that scary. It also isn’t consistent in who it targets, starting very deliberately with employees of the drilling company but soon graduating to anyone even remotely involved with the drilling company, or in the case of the film’s finale, someone who has an intention of maybe getting a summer job with the drilling company.

There are a few gnarly kills in the film, too, as the monster rips its way through the second act, but many of these scenes don’t add much to the film as the characters the monster is attacking have only just been introduced. Drilling company employee arrives with a friend; drilling company employee is brutally killed with the friend left alone; police interview the friend. Rinse and repeat. The scenes themselves aren’t bad, but they might have had more weight with even the slightest bit more introduction to the characters or their place in the community.

Luckily, where the film does shine is in its two lead performances. Madison Walsh and Sera-Lys McArthur play the police officer investigating the case and the park ranger she deputizes, respectively, and each of them is great. Walsh’s character Mary Stonechild walks a fine line of looking to empirical evidence despite her instincts telling her something otherworldly is happening, and that conflict is portrayed in very human and relatable ways. McArthur plays Stacey, a born hunter with a traumatic past in the military, as she gets to be the character usually reserved for a man: the no-nonsense, takes-no-shit-from-no-one action hero, and it’s clear she’s having a blast doing it. It’s refreshing to see a woman as that character, too, as it’s the type of role that would usually be reserved for a man.

Don’t Say Its Name isn’t a perfect film, but it is topical and timely and leans into indigenous myth in a way I’d love to see more of. It has clear budget constraints, but these positives and the two great lead performances make it worth watching.

Don’t Say Its Name had its world premiere at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.


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