SXSW Review: Outcast

By  · Published on March 14th, 2010

Outcast is the twisted tale of a nomadic tribe in Ireland. A young female member of the tribe harbors a secret shame that forces her into exile with her young son. While they settle into their less than pristine accommodations, and while the boy struggles to connect with his peers, the mother hones her skills in a dark, ancient breed of magic in an unsettling display of concern for her family’s well-being. Meanwhile a mysterious stranger, clearly a member of the same tribe, charges himself with finding the disgraced woman and combing the secrets she is hiding. Using similar powers as the woman, the stranger will stop at nothing to find her. The plot thickens when young people in the same housing project as our wayward family start turning up mutilated in alleyways. Will the mother be able to protect herself and her son? Will this menacing hunter conquer his prey?

This was a surprising win; really enjoyed it. For the first few minutes, I really wasn’t sure what to make of this Irish horror film. It plays things pretty close to the chest for the majority of the run time; even important connections between the characters. While I am all for leaving a certain amount to the audiences imagination and giving them some credit for their ability to pay attention, this still felt incredibly vague. And the thick Pikey Irish accent added to the problem, as the whiffs of context clues to which we are privy are easily lost in translation. That may make me sound like a arrogant American, but when paired with the very withholding storyline, it is a major limitation for American audiences.

The concept is what really shines in Outcast. If I were to give it a specific brand within the horror genre, there’s little doubt that it is a witchcraft film and as such is something with which I am not well versed. But then again, the infinitesimal amount of these films I have seen were all American so any expectations I may have had or conventions I may have understood would potentially be nullified from the start. What we can instead focus on here is the fascinating example of magic being used to identify cultural mythology. Whether it stems from an actual Irish fable is far beyond my lacking knowledge base, but it is clear that the rites and rituals preformed in this film are somehow root to Irish folklore. What was doubly effective about this is that the film brings very fantastical elements to a drab, downtrodden environment. The housing project as the setting for ancient sorcery was a wonderful juxtaposition.

The characters in Outcast are well defined even when the relationships between them are not. As I said, the connection between them is delicately implied but ultimately lost in a sea of thick brogue. But there was no mistaking the ruthlessness of the mother and her malevolence toward anyone she perceives as a threat to her family is something truly spectacular. Also, the moments when ancient conflict is boiled down to a ferocious series of magical duels between the mother and the stranger, the film really defines itself. I will say the secret of the monster is more than a little telegraphed, but the design of it is awesome. It is mostly practical effects augmented by digital effects, but the result is something quite special. If nothing else, any detractors who would try and call this film’s horror status into question-and granted it isn’t an absurd position given the first half hour- would have their arguments ripped to bloody shreds upon his arrival.

If I had one complaint about the film, it’s that I don’t like the aesthetic. As engaging and unique as the concept is, it gains nothing from the flat, uninteresting style in which it is shot. There are lots of jerky camera movements and many of the scenes are poorly lit and gritty which all culminated in giving the film a made-for-television visual scheme. Apart from that, I greatly enjoyed Outcast and feel it’s one of those quite little horror films that deserve an audience wider than the festival can accommodate.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.