Friday 4 March 2011

Absentia (2011)

Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, David Levine, Morgan Peter Brown, Justin Gordon and James Flanagan

I watch as many low budget, independent horror movies as I can get my hands on. One reason is that I just love the genre, but the main reason I have such a enduring fascination with them is that they have traditionally acted as a training ground, teaching filmmakers the arts of cinema so that they can move onto the next level and become someone special. There's a third reason though: every now and again someone appears out of the blue who has already done that, and they are the most special of all because not only do they work their magic for us to wonder at, they do so without moving on to the mainstream. That leaves us something that will be talked about for years: a low budget, indie genre flick that surpasses every expectation and leaves its slick, professional competition in the dust. I'll say this outright: this is the best horror movie I've seen since Let the Right One In, the best independent horror since Night of the Living Dead and it carries the biggest emotional impact of any horror film since... well, since I can remember.

It achieves this by throwing out the modern rulebook and stepping back in time to the days of character, suspense and subtlety. This is what Val Lewton would be making if he were still alive today. The mysteries begin with the film. Daniel Riley is missing and his pregnant wife Tricia is stapling up fresh flyers onto telegraph poles to replace older ragged ones. She's using up the last of them because he's been gone for seven years and back home is an application for death in absentia which may or may not bring the closure she hasn't found thus far. She's a complex character twisted by a whole slew of emotions, most obviously guilt, which is hardly diminishing now that she's about to have her husband declared dead while bearing another man's child. The renewal of posters is as much ritual for her as burning the ones she brings back. There are more subtle rituals in this film than anything else I can think of outside the work of John Ford.

When she gets home her sister, Callie Russel, is there waiting. Writer/director Mike Flanagan doesn't just break the rules of convention to give us a female lead, he gives us two, who appear achingly real and who serve as a fascinating dynamic. They're very different characters, perhaps the only things they share being hidden strength and the fact that they care about each other, enough to mention taboo subjects but not harp on about them. Tricia is settled being unsettled, unable to leave her home and its memories even when she wants to. Callie is younger and full of wanderlust, having apparently travelled and lived everywhere, not just physically either as the box she slides under the bed testifies. They haven't seen each other for five years, but Callie has grown and discovered a conscience with religion, so has come to help her sister through a tough time. Why now instead of five years earlier is merely another depth to her character.

Courtney Bell and Katie Parker are the actors tasked with these delicate portrayals and had they not been up to the task, this film would not be the success it is. Neither have much experience, it would seem, but they make every bit count, aided by realistic, well written dialogue and by Ryan David Leick's almost minimalist soundtrack, a pointer from moment one to the film's subtlety as a whole. Everything is psychological at this point, most obviously our first views of Daniel within Tricia's thoughts of what might have happened. Initially she just thought he left due to a fight, but that turns to amnesia and eventually alien abduction or other esoteric rationalisations. And that's just year one of seven. Great writing and great acting really embue this with emotion. It all matters, just as if we were part of the family. Finally, of course, is the inevitability of death, but that's the toughest to really believe, right? As Tricia says, it's hard to come back from that one.
Watching a second time, I caught a few clever hints in the early scenes that I'd missed the first time around. This is an accomplished screenplay with bookends, a pivot halfway through and a set of three well defined acts, plus a host of nuances that make sense on a first viewing but add depth on a second, once we know exactly what Flanagan has in store for us in the later acts. I'm still in awe at how he twists the viewers and characters both, not least because the twists are emotional things here, not some sort of self righteous M Night Shyamalan intellectualism. All that unfolds in this film is utterly consistent with the story as a whole, and the various readings that can be made of it, but the events that lead us into the second and third acts are truly emotionally powerful. A third of the way in, Flanagan rooked me between the eyes and I felt my gut twist at the power of what he had done. Another third and he did it again.

This also means that I can only summarise a fraction of the story because if I go beyond the first act I'll be throwing out spoilers, something that wouldn't happen with most films until the finalé. I can tell you about the tunnel, of course, because that's at the core of the film, a tunnel close to Tricia's house that leads to a park on the other side. Callie jogs through it in the morning, finding that the missing posters over there are about small pets. On her way back through she wakes up a freakishly thin man who lies in the way and rambles on about nothing. 'It's sleeping,' he says. What, he doesn't seem to know, but he wants to trade with her. He's a bizarrely cool character but the most awesome thing about him is that he's he's played by Doug Jones. Yes, Doug Frickin' Jones from Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy. Flanagan funded this movie through Kickstarter and yet he managed to cast Doug Jones. Some things are very right with the world of film.

Also building the freakiness of this film are the hallucinations Tricia starts having about Daniel, whether she's awake or asleep. Her therapist thinks they're lucid dreams caused by the stress of declaring her husband dead, which makes sense. They're nicely done too, neat manipulations of the laws of physics. Discussing their meaning actually has meaning, which really doesn't happen too often. I can't highlight just how much I despise therapist sessions in movies. This one is spot on and underpins much of the story, because the whole thing can be read in a number of ways. Every event has a few possible explanations, though the characters find the ones that work for them, in itself a message because that's precisely what we do as viewers, whether watching this film or going about our daily lives. This realisation heightens the tension as we seriously wonder what we would do in these situations.

There's much more that I shouldn't go into because you should discover it for yourself. Honestly, you deserve to be rooked between the eyes too. Cheap thrills are fine but every once in a while you owe it to yourself to experience the real deal, something that makes you wonder and squirm and think all at the same time. Somehow the freakiest thing in the first third of the film happens because of a good deed. Cassie, as a Christian thing, took food to the freaky dude in the tunnel only to find him gone. She leaves it, but the next day she finds that he's left something in return on her doorstep, what looks like a collection of keys and odd jewellery. After she takes it back to the tunnel, even when cautioned not to by a young passerby, it reappears that night, under her bedcovers. In most films this would be a cheap shock moment, here it's the final underline that tells us we're in new territory, we're not in control and whatever is going on is scary as hell.
Flanagan didn't have a lot of money to play with here but he achieves well beyond his meagre budget. He raised about $25,000 through Kickstarter, enough to appeal to private investors who added another $40,000. He used it wisely, starting with what he had and building from there. He knew the actresses who play the leads well, so well that he could write the parts for them and incorporate some of their own personalities into the characters. Courtney Bell, who plays Tricia, really was pregnant during filming, but fortunately she didn't have to travel far to work because Flanagan is the father, their apartment is where they shot most of the movie and the tunnel is really that close. 'I've been looking at it for four years,' Flanagan told me, 'and wanted to find a good story for a horror movie to feature it.' He found one and in doing so he also found another way to keep costs down.

Another way came through growing experience. Flanagan is a director at heart but his credits are all over the map, most obviously in editing as that's what pays the bills. Usually when people dismiss the art of editing, I point them at Russ Meyer movies, as all his wild motion is conjured up through editing because he never moved his camera. Now, I think I'll point them at Absentia, as an object lesson. Before his career as an editor took off, Flanagan made three features as a writer/director and the first cut of each ran well over two hours, only to be trimmed down as far as 80 minutes. His third feature, Ghosts of Hamilton Street, shrank from 140 to 106, but when he made Absentia, he experienced his 'sensibilities as an editor driving the script and the directing,' meaning that he effectively edited in camera, a trick Hitchcock did deliberately to avoid studio interference. The first cut of Absentia ran 95 minutes and it ended up at 91.

Needless to say, the editing is exactly what it should be, leaving us with a slow burner of a movie without an ounce of fat that never loses our interest for a second. A second viewing does outline a few flaws, but even here I think Flanagan got lucky. Some of the camerawork is a little shaky, though that may actually help provide an edge, a mere hint at the immediacy that found footage provides but without all the motion sickness. The lighting isn't perfect but again, that often works in the film's favour. From outside, for instance, the tunnel is just a tunnel. Even looking out from a few yards in, it's just a tunnel. However the further inside you go, the more surreal it gets as it seems to shift somewhere else, perhaps outside of space and time, helped to no small degree by the fact that the ends look like nothing but light. We're not in Kansas any more, Dorothy. As the story unfolds and we start to realise different interpretations are possible, this all helps.

The cast help too, every one of them adding something notable to the film. The two leads serve as the grounding for the story but the supporting cast back them up ably. Morgan Peter Brown is particularly excellent as Daniel, even though very little of his role involves speech. Dave Levine is solid as Det Mallory, powerful and unmoving but not always knowing. Justin Gordon is as solid as his partner, Det Lonergan, thoroughly different but just as good. They play well off each other, just as Parker and Bell play well off each other as Tricia and Callie. Flanagan only got Doug Jones for a day but that was enough for him to become a very powerful presence in the film. He's the only hugely experienced member of the cast, the rest ranging from very little to not much in the way of credits, which come often only or predominantly from Flanagan films. It doesn't matter. Nobody lets the side down.

I have much more that I want to say about this film, but can't, beyond the emphatic suggestion that you find a way to see it. Local audiences here in Arizona will get a couple of chances soon. It's a selection for the International Horror & Sci-Fi component of the Phoenix Film Festival and also the Arizona International Film Festival in Tucson, both screenings in April. There's no doubt that it will experience great success on the festival circuit and I can only hope that that success translates into a wider release. I can't wait to see it on the big screen and I say that having seen it twice at home already. It's awesome, freaky, fascinating stuff, character driven from moment one, full of ideas and worthy of many interpretations. Watching Absentia was a privilege and a pleasure and I look forward to introducing many people to it for many years to come. When you go back to Kickstarter for another film, Mr Flanagan, drop me a line. I'm in, whatever it is.

1 comment:

Liz Bradley said...

I'm so glad it's coming to AZ. I PA'd a couple of days (someone was nice enough to let me work on Doug Jones's day) and was worried I'd have to wait forever to see the film. With all the amazing reviews, I feel like this could be the next Paranormal Activity, only this time the "demand it" button will actually be worth it. I hope everyone involved makes a million dollars!