Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Absentia (2011)

Callie (Katie Parker) arrives at her pregnant sister Tricia's (Courtney Bell) small house in the suburbs to help Tricia finally end a very difficult time in her life. Tricia's husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) one day seven years ago just disappeared, leaving Tricia's life something of a shambles. Not that Callie's life is a bed of roses. She has a history of drug abuse and bad life decisions, as well as the tendency to just pack up and disappear when things get too rough for her.

Still, troubled as their relationship may have been at times, both sisters are trying to be there for each other. So Callie is doing her best to help Tricia make the final steps in having Daniel declared dead in absentia, and attempts to finally move Tricia out of the house she shared with Daniel, convincing her to start living again.

What Tricia doesn't tell Callie is that ever since she's started the process of declaring her husband dead, she's been having nightmares and hallucinations (or are they?) of a very angry Daniel. This sort of thing can of course be explained by trauma and stress, but soon enough weird things begin to happen to Callie too.

Everything that happens to the sisters seems to be connected to a nearby pedestrian tunnel and the unreasonably high number of disappearances of people and animals in the area, but is really something supernatural at play, or are people just leaving behind their troubles one way or the other?

Now, if every piece of indie horror were like this instead of being a part of a seemingly never-ending series of bad gore movies (I'm making unfair generalizations, I know, and apologize to all indie horror filmmakers who make more inspired films), I'd probably dedicate my whole blog to indie horror, never to look at anything else; at least for a week.

But honestly and in all appropriate enthusiasm, Mike Flanagan's Absentia is a film that hits all the right notes for me, a film that plays as if it were written by someone with a direct line to my brain. As it is in cases like this your mileage with the film at hand may very well vary even more than normal (after all, no two persons ever see the same film anyway). So it's probably best if I just indulge myself and count all the ways in which Absentia is awesome, without any pretence of critical distance.

First and foremost, there is Flanagan's direction and editing, inventively and with great intelligence keeping a film that in large parts plays out in three rooms and a tunnel into something visually dynamic and interesting without ever falling into the trap of getting showy with it. Flanagan has a fantastic sense for building up mood, treating the moments of dread and horror with the same sure hand he uses for the moments of intimacy. The latter does of course make the horror moments even stronger.

I was also pretty much floored by the film's sense of place. Sure, we're talking about a film taking place in the most quotidian suburb imaginable. However making such a place believable not only as a place where people could believably live quiet, quotidian lives but also one where the layers between the day-to-day and the outside - and possible the layers between people's inner lives and what is surrounding them - have literally and figuratively grown thin is an achievement all of its own.

Absentia also shows some very convincing acting, with especially the lead actresses being as flawed and sympathetic as one could wish for in a film like this. Again, there's a complete lack of showiness in their performances. I'd use the dread word "authenticity" if I weren't conditioned not to. Suffice it to say that Parker and Bell (as well as the actors in the smaller roles) do a fantastic job selling Absentia's more difficult moments, leaving the audience not much room to doubt the strange things happening to them.

The script is just as good as the rest of the movie too. The film's idea of a supernatural menace is clearly influenced by the Weird Tale tradition of horror (with nods in the direction of Lovecraft, Machen and Blackwood, and I don't use these names lightly), yet Flanagan's film does not stop at the point of imitation, and instead places (like many of the best writers of the contemporary Weird Tale do) the concepts of the classic Weird Tale in the context of contemporary urban life and the experiences of contemporary people. That's a fine position to explore concepts like loss, the wish to leave everything behind, and the horrors of what leaving everything behind might actually mean from, and Absentia knows well how to use it.


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