Fantastic Fest 2023: A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree Is a Beautiful Meditation on the Finality of Death

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I’m not going to lie, when I first heard about A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree, I kind of just snickered and passed over the film without giving it much thought. I was browsing through the Fantastic Fest line-up, and the name sounded like the kind of oddball comedy I usually steer clear of. But a few days later, when I took a deeper look at the festival line-up, I read the plot synopsis for this movie, and I became instantly intrigued. I found out that it was supposed to be a very somber and eerie ghost story, so I thought it would actually be right up my alley. I decided to give it a shot, and now that I’ve had the chance to see it, I’m happy to report that I made the right choice.

A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree was written and directed by Adam and Skye Mann, and it stars James Healy-Meaney, Gerry Wade, and M.J. Sullivan. It’s about a grieving young widower named Padraig who approaches an older carpenter named John with a proposition. He wants to build a coffin for his deceased wife, and he asks John to help him do it.

The man accepts, and he also gives Padraig a little homework. He wants his new student to read a bit about the history of their land and the mystical beliefs of the peoples who used to inhabit the area. Padraig reluctantly agrees, but soon enough, he begins to believe what he’s reading. He steals some more of John’s books and performs a magic ritual to get his wife back from the dead, and as you might be able to guess, he quickly learns that nothing in this life comes for free.

Before we dive into A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree, I have to let you know that this film is a very slow burn. It’s super atmospheric, but for most of its runtime, it doesn’t have much explicit horror. It’s more about the characters of Padraig and John than anything else, so if you’re looking to be scared silly, this is not the movie for you.

But if you’re a fan of slow-burn drama horror that takes its time building up to a hard-hitting conclusion, I think you’re really going to enjoy A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree. For starters, the acting here is phenomenal. The two leads, James Healy-Meaney and Gerry Wade, do a fantastic job playing Padraig and John, so I was able to easily lose myself in their relationship and their story.

They have an almost master/apprentice dynamic, and they actually reminded me a bit of the two main characters in Robert EggersThe Lighthouse (and I mean that as a compliment!). Padraig is like a young up-and-comer who thinks he can take on the world, and John is an older, more grizzled veteran who knows that his rookie mentee is in for a bit of a rude awakening. The two actors play those roles to perfection, so it’s always a joy to watch them go about their work, even when they’re not doing anything terribly exciting.

Two men talking by a fireplace

What’s more, the one real side character in A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree, a bartender named Liam, also shines. At around the 45-minute mark, Padraig and John go to his bar, and he tells them a story about a young woman and the man she marries. It ends up being a decent-sized monologue, and actor M.J. Sullivan delivers it flawlessly. Seriously, this guy had me hanging on his every word, so my eyes were absolutely glued to the screen as I sat there transfixed, just waiting to hear what he would say next.

On top of those great performances, this film also has some gorgeous cinematography. It’s shot in black and white, and just about every frame is picture-perfect. In fact, I’d even say it’s one of the most beautifully photographed movies I’ve seen since The Green Knight, and that stunning cinematography combines perfectly with the score to create a pervasive atmosphere of dread from beginning to end.

Like I said, A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree doesn’t have a ton of explicit horror, but it more than makes up for that with its atmosphere. Right from the get-go, it lets you know without a doubt that something terrible is going to happen, and that sense of foreboding forms a really intriguing contrast with the plot. The story is basically just a guy building a coffin, so it seems about as innocuous as can be. But since you feel like it’s not going to end well, you can’t help but wonder what kind of horrific turn the narrative is going to take, and for my money, that mystery is irresistible.

Now, I’m obviously not going to tell you how it all plays out, but I will say that the final scene of this film is absolutely devastating. It perfectly embodies Padraig’s grief over the loss of his wife, and everything from the acting to the sound to the editing comes together masterfully to draw you in and allow you to share in the poor guy’s agony. It’s one of the hardest-hitting and most effective grief scenes I’ve come across since Hereditary, so if you’ve ever lost anybody you love, it’s sure to resonate with you on a much deeper level than your typical genre finale.

In case you couldn’t tell, I really loved A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree, so I’m super happy I didn’t let the film’s silly-sounding name keep me from checking it out. In fact, I’d even say it’s the best movie I’ve seen so far at Fantastic Fest. It’s a beautiful, flawlessly executed ghost story about the pain of grief and the finality of death, so I highly recommend that you keep an eye out for it. The film had its US premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 25, and while it currently doesn’t have a release date, you’re going to want to watch it as soon as it becomes available.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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