One of the best things about going to a film festival is discovering films that are, in all practicality, probably not going to be heard from (in the US, that is) until a distributor takes a risk and breaks them free of the festival circuit cycle. And if the title in question is a horror movie, chances are slim it'll ever end up back on the big screen again. Take Outcast, for example, from Scottish director Colm McCarthy. Where else but the festival circuit are you going to be able to see a film featuring nomads who use ancient Irish rituals and dark magic to quietly fight each other whilst an unknown creature stalks a dingy estate (that's what the Brits call subsidized housing these days) somewhere in the UK?
There just isn't much of a market for low-budget, dark fantasy films from the UK here in the States. I'd say that's a shame, but I'm not even sure there's a market for such films anywhere in the world and I'm really not sure I'd have it any other way. If there were even a handful of films about Irish dark magic, I'm not so sure Outcast would have what it takes to stand out. It's got a moderate pace for what is essentially a chase film, but is intentionally vague and has the production values of a high end skate video. However, because there really isn't any other game in town on the Irish fantasy front, Outcast stands tall in a quirky, "Have you seen the one about...?" kind of way.
As for what the Irish dark magic is in service of, well, I too must be intentionally vague. The basic gist is this: Mary and her son, Fergal, are on the run from someone. They've taken up residence in a quiet concrete ghetto where Fergal sparks up a relationship with local gal Petronella. The enigmatic Cathal is throwing magical caution to the wind in his blind pursuit of Mary and Fergal, meanwhile a nightly beast in the shadows begins making things difficult for all involved.
It's quite unclear for a bulk of the movie who is related to who and how, as well as who is capable of what and how, and though the mysteries of McCarthy's script are confusing at first, they're not exactly boring. They're just slow to come into focus, but when they do they always deliver a nice little wake-up slap to the proceedings. These mini-revelations are really quite fascinating, script wise, but unfortunately as they're handled on the big screen they come across as highlights in contrast to how un-involving several stretches of the film are.
I admire that McCarthy doesn't bend over backwards to explain the rules of his fantasy world. Not knowing the limits of what could happen next bestows upon the film an edginess it would otherwise lack. The flip side of that argument, however, is that an audience can only be a bystander for so long before we start to want to feel like we are, in some way, a part of the film's world. Were the events of Outcast the first entry in a comic book or anime series, their withholding nature would do a wonderful job of establishing the weird world in which it exists. As a self-contained film, however, it's just not as interesting as it needs to be.
You may never grow close to the characters, their powers, and their lives, but being a complete fly on the wall is not without its own rewards. McCarthy knows how to shock and awe in small doses and I particularly like the grungier, simple style of the movie; however, I am also a fan of the restrained, matter-of-fact style of BBC dramas, which Outcast is highly reminiscent of (no surprise there when you learn McCarthy is a veteran of the TV world). There's no denying how unique it all is, though, so until there's more dark Irish fantasy up on film (on the graphic novel end, check out The Chill) to better tune the balance of old-world mysticism with new-world storytelling, it'll do just fine.