It probably didn’t take much foresight on her part, but Elise Finnerty’s feature debut embodies a common double-edged sword for the horror genre: It’s “timely.”
In fact, given the Supreme Court’s latest decision that came down the morning after the world premiere of The Ones You Didn’t Burn, it couldn’t possibly be more timely. Though it would be an oversimplification to say that it’s a film about women led by a male character, the parallel is there, and it’s hard to shake.
Fortunately, Finnerty’s film doesn’t depend on timing to find success—because the themes of her film are (unfortunately) timeless. The film’s present-day narrative is focused on digging up the past and bringing it into a contemporary light, and Finnerty expertly illustrates that dichotomy as a suspenseful chess match between the central characters.
The story revolves around two siblings, Nathan (Nathan Wallace) and Mirra (Jenna Rose Sander), as they return to their hometown in the wake of their father’s death to settle his estate. As they interact with old friends and new acquaintances, they begin to not only drift apart but come to different conclusions about selling their father’s farm.
The layers for these characters are familiar but engaging nonetheless thanks to two terrific lead performances. Nathan is a jaded drug addict clinging to sobriety but constantly on the verge of a relapse, and Mirra is an overworked big-city career woman who resents herself for her own success. They’ve been on different paths for a long time, and losing their father could bring them closer together than ever or push them beyond reconciliation.
It should be noted that the third major player in this conundrum is Finnerty herself. She plays Alice, one of the two farmhands that has been working the siblings’ newly inherited lands long enough to know what they’re worth. Casting herself may have been a budget-minded decision, but it was a smart one too, as she holds her own with Wallace and Sander, quietly tipping the scales of their standoff while neither one is looking.
To that note, Finnerty may have been working on a budget, but she used her resources efficiently and impressively. The film simply looks fantastic, making the most of its landscapes (mostly a rural small town with moments of coastal quaintness mixed in) but drawing equally from the power of its performances (including a stunning long-take close-up of Sander). And the sound design ratchets up the tension at every corner, melding with the score to create a haunting atmosphere.
And for those viewers on a time crunch, The Ones You Didn’t Burn is a blessing. Though it only runs 70 minutes, it doesn’t at all short-change its audience thanks to thorough narrative and character arcs. It’ll only cost you a few more minutes than an episode of prestige TV.
Speaking (again) of the clock, perhaps there’s a third edge to the sword when it comes to this film’s timeliness: that of Finnerty herself as a triple-threat of writing, directing, and acting. This feature debut is right on schedule, because the horror genre is more welcoming than ever of a refreshing voice and a perspective like hers; frankly, it’s more in need of it than ever as well.
‘The Ones You Didn’t Burn’ illuminates the power of ancestral resentment [CFF 2022]
Elise Finnerty’s The Ones You Didn’t Burn is more than just a timely, resonant story—it’s a terrific feature debut from a much-needed new voice in horror.