I’m just going to lay it right there on the table: Writer/director Mike Flanagan’s 2010 horror outing “Absentia” is a damn fine American horror movie. Not only is the entire picture drenched in palpable melancholy and coated with a thick layer of foreboding, it presents its handful of effective scares in a subtle, mature fashion. Instead of beating you severely about the head and neck with goofy jump scares or subjecting your gore-saturated brain with an overwhelming amount of gruesome material, Flanagan and crew made the wise decision to treat you like an adult who appreciates such old-fashioned elements like pacing, characterization, and intelligent plotting. It’s the sort of thing I look for in modern horror movies, though I rarely encounter them on this side of the pond.
That having been said, if your attention span is shorter than your haircut, you might have some problems properly digesting “Absentia”. The film requires a bit of patience on the part of the audience, as the story takes its sweet time getting to the proverbial good stuff. However, as I said above, that sort of thing doesn’t bother me in the least, especially when the movie in question is stocked with a believable and sympathetic stable of characters. You can feel that every single second of the feature is building towards something, and the payoff is certainly worth the emotional investment. Of course, if you have a hard time sitting still during the slower sections of most motion pictures, “Absentia” might prove to be too much for your information-addled brain to process. And that, as they say, is okay. Sad and a little worrisome, yes, but okay nonetheless.
“Absentia” tells the story of Tricia (Courtney Bell), a woman whose husband has been missing for seven long years. This mysterious event has left several deep emotional scars on her life, and, understandably, she’s having a hard time moving forward. That is, however, until her younger sister Callie (Katie Parker) moves in with her. Despite having quite a few problems of her own to contend with, Callie persuades Tricia to declare her husband “dead in absentia”, which is just a fancy way of saying that he’s deceased in the eyes of the government. After a bit of arm twisting, Tricia agrees to fill out the proper paperwork, despite the fact that she still hopes in her heart that he’s alive out there somewhere. Before the ink has the opportunity to dry on the appropriate documents, a series of seriously bizarre events begin to unfold, all of which seem connected to the strange tunnel that rests a few feet from Tricia’s front door. Is her husband’s disappearance linked to the other missing people in that neighborhood? More importantly, is something dark and sinister snatching folks from these perilous suburban streets?
Mike Flanagan doesn’t offer up any easy answers. Just when you think the circumstances have been thoroughly explained, in walks a rational and decidedly logical explanation to completely derail any possible theories you may have developed. And that, I think, is what makes “Absentia” work. There are plenty of avenues for the viewer to explore, many of which point in the general direction of the supernatural. For instance, when Callie begins “trading” with the faceless entity that seems to dwell within the aforementioned tunnel, is she dealing with a human being or is something a bit more dangerous pulling the strings? Clues will lead you one way, only to shift your focus just when you think you have it all figured out. The final image in the film is genuinely compelling, and seems to supoort the fact that Flanagan and company aren’t interest in feeding their audience the answers they seek. It reminded me of Brad Anderson’s “Session 9” in that respect, and practically screams for you to watch it over and over again until all the pieces fit together.
“Absentia” is an insanely intelligent and frequently terrifying experience, one that I think many will enjoy if they’re willing to set aside all of those unsightly bad habits they’ve learned from watching mainstream American genre movies. Those of you who need everything spelled out in vivid detail are probably going to walk away feeling cheated, confused, even angry that Flanagan leaves so many loose ends dangling in the cinematic wind. The ending is so open-ended and thought-provoking that you may find yourself revisiting the story when your mind has a moment to gnaw upon the finer details. In addition to providing a number of high-quality shocks and a plethora of creepy, atmospheric scenes, the feature is held together by its impossibly talented cast, all of whom contribute greatly to the film’s emotional impact. “Absentia” might be a tough nut to crack, but attempting to figure things out is half the fun.
Mike Flanagan (director) / Mike Flanagan (screenplay)
CAST: Katie Parker … Callie
Courtney Bell … Tricia
Dave Levine … Det. Mallory
Morgan Peter Brown … Daniel
Justin Gordon … Det. Lonergan
James Flanagan … Jamie Lambert