Re:View – ‘Absentia’
Existing in the half-light between horror, suspense, psychological thriller and art film, ‘Absentia’ – like ‘Session 9’, ‘The Nines’ and ‘Spoorloos’ – turns out to be a hidden gem of a movie, all the more surprising and subtle for being so low budget.
Tricia’s husband Daniel went for a walk and never came back. That was seven years ago. Now her sister Callie, a former wild child who is attempting to clean up her act, has persuaded her to have Daniel declared dead in absentia. Except that Daniel doesn’t appear to be dead – he keeps popping up all over Tricia’s home.
That’s the start-point for an engrossing lo-fi psychological chiller that pleases on almost every level. Callie and Tricia feel as if they’ve lived in their parts for a long time. The setting is blue-collar LA, in the kind of downt-at-heel neighbourhood Hollywood rarely lets us see. Tricia has financial problems and a bigger burden; she’s heavily pregnant with the child of the local detective in charge of her husband’s case. Is her guilt at declaring her husband dead somehow manifesting itself? The kindly detective is suspicious of Callie, the sisters fight, everything feels out of whack…
And at this point the narrative takes one of those left turns you either buy into or run away from, but director Mike Flanagan has laid his groundwork so thoroughly that it’s likely you won’t doubt the premise. Callie makes the discovery that suggests either a collective madness gradually enveloping the players or a vast, unthinkable horror. The latter is suggested by two smart moves on Flanagan’s part; he extracts performances of unflinching truth from even the most minor roles, and he’s careful to unveil his horrors in the tiniest glimpses, usually at the fadeout of a shot, so that we doubt our own senses as much as Callie and Tricia doubt theirs.
It’s a virtually gore-free film and rightly so, because unsettled states of mind are more important here, with a spreading sense of dread based around the foot tunnel connecting the neighbourhood to the park where the endearingly flawed Callie goes jogging. Not for nothing is there a fairytale book of the Three Billygoats Gruff in her backpack…
An ominous, trancey score and moody night sequences add to the disquiet as Tricia uncovers the truth about her husband. My only complaints are the lurid DVD cover that suggests an entirely different film, and the downbeat ending that proves the least surprising part – ‘Absentia’ is a slow-burner that delivers real frissons, and the director is clearly someone to keep an eye on.