Absentia Movie Review
Written by Steve Pattee
A FallBack Plan Productions Production
DVD released by Phase 4 Films
Written and directed by Mike Flanagan
2010, 91 minutes, Not rated
DVD released on March 13th, 2012
Katie Parker as Callie
Courtney Bell as Tricia
David Levine as Det. Mallory
Morgan Peter Brown as Daniel
Justin Gordon as Det. Lonergan
James Flanagan as Jamie Lambert
Scott Graham as Dr. Elliot
Doug Jones as Walter Lambert
In March of 2006 I reviewed a fantastic horror short, Oculus, a piece that in 32 minutes delivered more scares than your average feature-length film. I eagerly waited for the next horror film from writer/director Mike Flanagan. And waited. And waited. Finally, after four years, Absentia arrived. Holy hell, it was worth the wait.
"In absentia" is Latin for "in absence", and that is what Absentia focuses on, Tricia (Courtney Bell) declaring her husband, Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown), dead in absentia after being missing for seven years. He just up and disappeared. No letter, no phone call, no goodbyes…just gone.
To say Tricia is in a high-stress situation would be an understatement. In addition to filing the papers for her missing husband's death certificate, she is single and pregnant, the detective (Dave Levine) assigned to her husband's case is in love with her and her estranged, drug-addict sister has shown up to live with her for a spell. It's no wonder Tricia has started having hallucinations of Daniel everywhere she turns. It probably doesn't help that there's a creepy-ass tunnel across the street from where she lives that is the centerpiece for some mysterious disappearances, both in pet and human form. And things become more intense when hubby shows back up, and the thing that had him comes looking for him.
The first thing I noticed about Absentia is how beautifully shot it is. Filmed using a Canon 5D Mark II, the picture quality is stunning, even for a screener disc. Considering the Mark II is marketed as a still camera, seeing what it is capable of in the right hands, this is going to open the doors to a lot of filmmakers. Yet picture quality means nothing if you don't know how to shoot, and Flanagan's vision is greatly aided by Rustin Cerveny's cinematography. As a huge Michael Mann fan, I noticed a stylistic influence here, both visually and phonetically. Like Heat, Absentia has a visual style that complements the color pallet. Using a variety of color, contrast and focus, shots are expertly mixed for the emotion needed for each scene. Warm oranges, cold blues and whites with startling contrast ripple throughout the movie, each dependant on what is being shot. There are some scenes which blur in and out of focus, creating a surreal environment for the viewer as much as it is for the characters.
Absentia uses a minimalist approach to the music. Where you would expect fast tempo music during a stressful or tense situation, the music is downplayed. There is not a huge score in Absentia, it's more of a cue repeated often, slightly changed, humming in the background. Ryan David Leak's haunting, synthetic score is just enough to be noticeable, but never intrusive, really adding to the unsettling feel of the film.
The writing in Absentia is standout as well. Far too often films rely on exposition for those who don't keep up with what's going on, but not here. Flanagan puts everything on the plate and demands the viewer pay attention. Everything you see is important from the opening credits and there are things that, at first glance, seem throwaway, but play an important part in the movie (I know this first hand because on my second viewing there were a few things missed from the first. I suspect a third watch will yield more). In addition, Absentia may irk some people that it never shows what is actually causing the disappearances, although it's always there, instead relying on the audience's imagination. However, like The Haunting and Blair Witch Project, sometimes not seeing the big bad is just, if not more, effective as it adds to the mystery. That's certainly not to say there aren't some scares in Absentia, as there are. Quite a few, as a matter of fact, and they are creepy-filled goodness.
Acting-wise, like the rest of the movie, Absentia continues to bat a thousand. With exceptional performances across the board, the cast seamlessly brings Flanagan's tough script to life. I say tough because Absentia is not a film that relies on the effects of the antagonist to succeed. This is a story driven film, rather than effects one, and it's crucial to have a competent team to make it happen. At first I was skeptical with Katie Parker's and Courtney Bell's first appearance together on screen, because they seemed so uncomfortable with each other and it was distracting as the two play sisters. However, it was soon apparent that the two had not spoken in many years, and Callie (Parker) had left under strained circumstances driving a wedge between the two. Once I had that realization, I had to give the actors high credit because the two's awkwardness was intentional, and they played it perfectly, making me as uncomfortable watching as the characters were reuniting. As the movie went on, the two became more comfortable with each other, and felt very natural considering the characters' history with one another.
Yet, as solid as the performances are, there is one niggle I have with them: I didn't buy David Levine and Justin Gordon as detectives Mallory and Lambert (respectively). That's not to say they didn't do a good job with the characters, far from it. Levine's Mallory is very believable in his determination to protect Tricia from the troubles in her life, due to his love for her. Yet both seem to be missing an 'edge' that detectives have that make them detectives. It's as if the two characters haven't quite seen enough trauma in their job to make them as hard as they should be. Neither seems to be jaded enough to be detectives. If just one had that hardness to him, the other could be bought, but neither seemed to be seasoned. This seems like a minor thing, but with everything else working so well in the film, it's just enough to stand out.
While Mike Flanagan has a resume consisting of eight films, Absentia is only his second offering in the horror genre, and between this and Oculus, he shows he has the skills to make a damn fine horror film that's about more than just scares. He's able to craft a solid story and bring it to the screen with seemingly effortless ease, and I hope he doesn't make me wait another four years to frighten me.