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Film Review: “An Unknown Compelling Force” Isn’t Ever As Compelling As Its Subject

Written by: Hannah Tran | June 14th, 2021

Film poster: “An Unknown Compelling Force”

An Unknown Compelling Force (Liam Le Guillou, 2021) 1½ out of 4 stars.

In the Ural Mountains’ Dyatlov Pass, in 1959, the bodies of a group of athletic and smart student hikers (by all accounts) were found dead. Strewn across the snowy landscape, they showed signs of immense trauma and appeared to have left their campsite in a hurry. Despite the number of scientific investigations that have successfully proposed natural weather events as having instigated that trauma, numerous conspiracy theories have sprung up. One person who still wishes for a more definitive answer is L.A.-based documentarian Liam Le Guillou. Attempting to break the case down to its very basics, Le Guillou travels through Russia in search of answers. But while the mystery itself is intriguing, the end result is a long and unsatisfying drag that offers little more than what has already been told.

Although Le Guillou’s passion for the subject seeps through the screen, his direction too often seems more eager to focus on himself than on the actual tragedy and to highlight sensational conspiracies over more rational explanations. His connection to the incident in Dyatlov doesn’t extend beyond him wanting to know more than a quick internet search could offer him. But despite his lack of personal connection to the story, he does manage to get in contact with a number of informative individuals, including investigators, journalists, and friends of the hikers, who provide him with very comprehensive understandings of the leading theories surrounding the case.

Members of the ill-fated hiking group in AN UNKNOWN COMPELLING FORCE ©1091 Pictures

That being said, all of their answers are unable to fulfill his dream of definitively cracking the case. Instead, he seems to merely have a solid understanding of many of the hypotheses he could have easily found online without the need of a personal odyssey through Russia. It then becomes clear that his curiosity is not due to the lack of attention or reasonable theories to explain the tragedy but the fact that he wishes these explanations were not so ordinary or natural as an avalanche or a violent katabatic wind. To fill this void, Le Guillou decides to turn what are initially interesting effects and photographs into redundant and overused visuals, as he recycles everything until it loses all of its charm.

The overall lack of rationality and research, combined with its TV-special aesthetic, make An Unknown Compelling Force feel just as ordinary and unimaginative as the explanations Le Guillou seems displeased with. Perhaps even worse, it makes the incident itself, an undeniably tragic event, seem just as ordinary. This documentary fits into the mountain of films, TV shows, podcasts, and video games that have already exploited the hikers’ story for their own purposes of cheap entertainment.

Members of the ill-fate hiking group in AN UNKNOWN COMPELLING FORCE ©1091 Pictures

Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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