Written and Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Katie Parker, Courtney Bell and Dave Levine
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“In absentia” is an official term that denotes that someone has passed away after a prolonged absence; however, Mike Flanagan’s Absentia is a film that deals with those who are left behind by such a demise. While it’s a horror film, it’s suffocated by more sadness than scares, and this actually turns out to be a boon. There’s a tangible sense of loss felt in its two protagonists, both of whom already have enough baggage to fill an entire airplane cargo, so when those horror elements finally crop up in Absentia, they’re sent down a dark path of obsession and desperation. In an effort to fill the holes in their lives, they inadvertently keep puncturing more.
The film hovers around a pair of sisters, Callie (Katie Parker) and Tricia (Courtney Bell); the former is the prodigal daughter whose past is lined with a nasty drug habit and listless wandering, while the latter was actually settled down with a husband. However, he disappeared seven years ago without a trace, and Tricia has attempted to move on by officially obtaining his death certificate; this matter is complicated when Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) actually turns up alive--but just barely. He’s ragged and disheveled and has no recollection of where he’s been for seven years, and he may not be alone since a malevolent force seems to be stalking him.
Absentia eventually becomes a cool take-off of urban and local legends, not to mention a twisted re-imagining of old folk tales. It’s never loud or overt about this though and instead takes a low-key approach that keeps its monster largely unseen and skirting around the edges of both the frame and the story. The complication offered by it and Robert’s appearance acts more like a key that unlocks the tension in Callie and Tricia’s lives. While there is a mystery behind it all, the film is so securely anchored by Parker and Bell that one feels the mystery through them; so many mysteries treat its characters as mere vessels to uncover and relay information to the viewers, but Absentia is a character study first and a horror film secondly.
Over half of the film merely has us circling them and observing their attempt to overcome their grief and loss. Both actresses are well-suited for the role and exhibit a believable chemistry; they reconnect like you’d expect estranged sisters to do, and they likewise share some intense moments where their resentment seeps through. Parker is especially excellent; right off the bat, she reminded me of Natalie Portman both in her looks and her voice, and she ended up delivering one of those very natural, graceful performances. Even though she’s playing a character with a somewhat sordid history, she comes off as quite endearing ; she’s a broken person trying to fix herself, and there’s no doubt you want her to get fixed. As mournful as Absentia often is, it wants to be optimistic in a certain way, and I enjoy how all of the actors naturally slide into and inhabit these characters that are right on the brink of moving on with their lives just before they’re torn apart all over again.
The script peppers in subtle hints that something is amiss, little instances that begin to poke and prod at the characters. For example, Callie stumbles upon a ragged vagabond in a local tunnel (Doug Jones) who rants, raves, and acts an omen for the portentous events to come. Most of the horrors are implicit and intentionally shadowed, as the cool little yarn that’s eventually spun is a compact, tight one that gives you the bare essentials. Absentia will appeal to anyone who was ever spooked by that local haunt that children were warned away from. Instead of soaking characters into some dense mythology, though, Absentia sticks with the characters and their desperation.
That desperation might be the most haunting thing Absentia has to offer; there are moments when the characters are driven by it, even going so far as to imagine that their missing loved ones are actually safe and sound, out there somewhere. Moments like that make Absentia come off as being a little more ambiguous than it really is; I think there was an opportunity to make this one of those out-and-out mind fucks that has you questioning just what’s real and what isn’t, all the while making the same point. There’s loads of unreliable characters and whatnot, but I think the movie makes it abundantly clear that it’s all happened, which is certainly fine. In fact, the mix between the film’s lo-fi, handheld style and those supernatural elements captures a certain rawness; it’s obviously not a found footage movie, but it carries that same sort of authenticity that serves this film very well.
Absentia’s authenticity--found in both its performances and its sentiment--creates a captivating portrait of love and loss. Rarely does it give into hysterics, instead preferring to subtly rumble and creep up on you, not unlike its spectral antagonist. Absentia received a lot of buzz last year on the indie scene, and it resulted in Phase 4 Films picking it up for DVD distribution. They’ve graced the film with a fine DVD release that boasts a solid presentation of the film that captures its lo-fi visuals well, and the soundtrack is actually quite immersive considering the low budget involved. A wealth of special features stuff the disc, including deleted scenes, a camera test teaser, a trailer, and a 30 minute retrospective that takes you through the life of the film, going all the way back to its pre-production. Rounding out the supplements are two commentaries: one features Flanagan alongside Morgan Peter Brown, Joe Wicker, and Justin Gordon, who discuss the film’s production (it actually started as a Kickstarter campaign), while the other track features Flanagan alongside Parker, Bell, Levine, and Jones. Absentia proves that little gems can emerge from the indie scene if given a shot; if nothing else, it might have you thinking twice the next time you come across a promising production that’s being crowd-funded. Buy it!
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