The Ones You Didn’t Burn had its international première at FrightFest 2022
“I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung.”
These words, expressly cited from Henry David Thoreau, appear as text at the beginning of writer/director Elise Finnerty’s feature debut The Ones You Didn’t Burn, although the end of the quote, “…and Christianity and candles have been introduced,” is omitted. What Thoreau is expressing here is the masculine propensity to resort to violence when confronted with the unknown, or else to fill in the shadows with myth and illuminating, sometimes destructive flame. The film is set on the coast near Montauk in upstate New York, in the present day long after the witch trials – but it is nonetheless haunted by patriarchal crimes against women, and their long, long legacy.
It is legacy which has drawn siblings Nathan (Nathan Wallace) and Mirra (Jenna Rose Sander) back to the old farm. With their estranged father recently dead from a suicidal drowning at the nearby beach, they have come to settle his affairs and to decide what to do with his property. Mirra befriends the hippie-dippy sisters Alice (Finnerty) and Scarlett (Estelle Girard Parks) who had been helping her dad out on the farm, and after taking an LSD trip with them, begins to see the appeal of giving up her office job in the City and running the place with these other two women, as the sisters’ ancestors had done centuries earlier. Meanwhile unemployed recovering addict Nathan reunites, at first reluctantly, with his old friend and fellow hellraiser Greg (Samuel Dunning), and quickly falls off the wagon, binging once more on alcohol and harder stuff, and getting increasingly paranoid about his father’s horrific end.
“I feel so guilty,” says Nathan, struggling with the idea that they are going to sell off land that has been in their family for many generations – although he appears to feel less guilty about taking away the livelihood of those who have been working the crops. Nathan’s sense of guilt is evident in the persistent nightmares that plague him, in which he is variously overwhelmed, as his father was, by the coastal waters, or mounted by an otherworldly witch who comes from the sea. Meanwhile the aggression and fantasies of rape that he directs at Alice and Scarlett (whose nickname, Scar, is suggestive of past trauma) resonate with historic acts of murderous misogyny that took place there in the seventeenth century. Like his late father, Nathan struggles with the demons of drink and drugs, and we may wonder whether he has inherited not just property but mental illness as part of his gynophobic patrimony. Alternatively, Nathan really is falling victim to ghosts who “never forgot” and now demand symmetrical satisfaction for the outrages committed against them in the distant past on this ‘cursed’ land. Either way, Nathan is about to be visited by a guilt that is collective as much as individual. For America’s fertile soil has long covered over a buried chronicle of theft, rapine and far worse, and the fates of this farm’s past female landholders intersect with the nation’s historical treatment of its indigenous populations and imported slaves.
This story of siblings returned to a family farm where something strange and possibly supernatural is going down might superficially sound like Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked (2020), but as these three sisters engage in their nocturnal activities together and conjure a plan for the farm to have a different future divorced from patriarchal control, Finnerty’s film comes with a more overtly feminist tone, while also leaving the question open whether something genuinely witchy is happening, or Nathan is just another feckless man still afraid of the dark and doomed to his own mythologised (self-)destruction.
strap: Elise Finnerty’s witchy feature debut disinters a long history of male guilt and female solidarity down on the farm
© Anton Bitel