Monday, December 23, 2013

Absentia: All That You Love Will Be Carried Away

In my last post, I observed that if I've disliked movies lately, it's been because they lack restraint, and lean too heavily on a formulaic, assembled notion of horror. The analogy is that of a haunted house ride - you're yanked from scene to scene, and things jump out at you, and you are startled by the sudden shock, and we call it being scared. Which I guess it is, but it's a cheap, shallow, unsatisfying sort of scare, and sells the potential of horror filmmaking (as well as the audience who appreciates it) short.

Conversely, a lot of the movies I've liked lately have shared a pattern as well. They've been restrained, intimately sketched stories about normal people who find themselves in a strange situation and how they react to it. Ultimately, the focus is on the people and these movies work because we recognize and connect with these people and so care about what happens to them. It also allows for more complex storytelling - human beings are flawed and complicated, and can do the right thing for all the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for every right reason, and when this sort of psychological messiness is applied to the events we associate with scary movies, the feelings the movies evoke are bright and sharp. It's not just being startled by a sudden jolt, it's horror - fear for these people, terror at what they're experiencing, and the lingering discordant notes of how their decisions lead to the outcomes they did. In Resolution, two close friends are so locked into the patterns of their lifelong relationship that they don't see what's looming over them until it's too late. In Salvage, people whose relationships are fragile to start are thrown together by a sudden, violent intrusion into their lives and forced to reexamine who they are in life-or-death circumstances. In Scalene, we're presented with three people whose relationship to each other is defined by very specific constraints, and the horror comes from the way those constraints warp and deform natural impulses in shocking ways. In each case, the people respond to their circumstances instead of existing only to the extent that it is necessary for them to put events in motion.

Absentia is an impressive addition to this list, masterfully balancing the natural and supernatural to tell a deeply affecting story about how people handle loss.

It makes its intent known immediately by opening with an amazing shot - a tattered missing person poster stapled to a telephone pole, singular and awful.  Then someone comes along and replaces it with a new copy. Heartbreaking. Someone who is loved is gone from the world, and someone else misses them, and they haven't given up hope. Then the camera pulls back, and we see that the person replacing the posters is a pregnant young woman, and it becomes quietly devastating. In a matter of maybe two minutes, we are drawn into this woman's world.

Her name is Tricia, and her husband has been missing for seven years now. She's spent these seven years in a sort of limbo - he kept being gone, and she came up with all sorts of stories explaining his disappearance in ways that allow her to think of him safe and happy somewhere (such is love) - but she's also torn between waiting for him and moving on. The father of her child is obviously not her husband (such is how we deal with loss), and although she's out replacing the missing-person posters she's been posting and replacing for seven years now (seven years!), she's on the eve of something important: After the mandatory seven-year waiting period, and many forms and many hours spent with an attorney, Tricia is about to declare her husband dead in absentia. She's out replacing the posters to get rid of the last batch she had printed up - you know, just to get rid of them. We tell ourselves things to help us to feel better.

Tricia comes home from her errand of seven years to find a young woman sitting on her stoop. Her younger sister Callie has come to stay with Tricia and help her make all of her different transitions between life and death a little easier - the declaration, the impending childbirth, moving out of the apartment she shared with her husband. Exchanging death for life and moving on. There's some awkwardness, some hesitancy, but just glimpses. They're genuinely happy to see each other, if not a little nervous. There's a lot there going unsaid, and then it gets said, like lightning flashing behind storm clouds and passing just as quickly.

And this is one of Absentia's biggest strengths, though not its only one: Tricia and Callie have the easy, believable chemistry of sisters. They speak in a familiar shorthand, allude to past events without actually elaborating on them (a common expository shortcoming), and move back and forth between sniping at each other and expressing genuine sympathy in the ways that people who have shared a lifetime can. This intimacy locates the story in a very believable world - this isn't a movie, these are people's lives, a few days out of many in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles. We know these people, and may even be them.

They're a study in fundamental contrasts as well. Tricia has stayed in one place, settled in. She's the quiet responsible one, who holds down a job, lives her life in the wake of an ongoing tragedy without overt complaint. She keeps calm and carries on. Callie moves restlessly from place to place, living on couches, out of her car, with a series of people, a nomad. Her restlessness extends down into her very being, as well. She's voluble and sarcastic, sharply perceptive, constantly on watch. Scenes of Callie running punctuate the story beats in the movie - she's always running. Each retreated in different ways from an unhappy home life (absent father, emotionally damaged mother) - Tricia settled for the security of marriage, even if she wasn't happy, just to have something onto which she could hold. Callie sought the oblivion of drugs, to escape everything, and her moves from place to place have been punctuated by stays in different rehab facilities. Each has come to cope in different new ways as well - Tricia meditates, tries to separate herself from earthly attachments, sources of suffering, and Callie prays, wants to believe there's a plan to it all and that something better waits on the other side.

It's this notion of another side that starts to intrude on their lives, the closer Tricia gets to the day when she signs the papers. It all begins innocuously enough - a feeling like there's someone else in the room with Tricia, and the odd experience Callie has when she's out for one of her runs - she heads through a tunnel that separates Tricia's neighborhood from a park, and there's a man lying there. He's malnourished, very pale and weak. Callie hesitates, and the man looks at her.

He says "you can see me?"

It is this simple question, and how Callie responds to it, that begins to unravel everything. And this is what is great about Absentia - it never stops being a movie about the lives of real people, people with desires and shortcomings and regrets and love, and how they deal with the uncertain space between life and death. How it expresses that, however, shifts neatly from the natural to the unnatural in turns, slowly iterating on its initial sense of sadness and unease, raising the stakes until we're faced with the realization that there's nothing safe about the world in which we live. There's something awful waiting on the other side of the wall, something that is…elsewhere, and it is terrible beyond comprehension. We are eased into a nightmare through careful imagery and smart reversals of expectations we base on that imagery. It's not just a good story, it's a good story that knows when to upend convention - to let us think we know what's going on until we don't.

It accomplishes a lot of this with very little - everything is handled with care, intelligence, and restraint. We get a sense of the relationships between people based on how they act, not by being told. It's not just Callie and Tricia, though they are certainly the heart of the movie, it's also the people with whom they interact. Like the opening of the movie, many shots communicate a lot about these people economically, with a look or gesture or shift in voice. This same economy even extends to the supernatural elements of the story. There are no big productions here, no music stings telling you when to be scared or flashy special effects, just the quietly horrific intruding on everyday life with no fanfare. A single shoe lying in the street, the rustle of a shower curtain, a blurry figure slumped in the background, chirping and scuttling, unexpected, shocking manifestations, all create the deeply unsettling feeling that there is a world just beyond this one, pressed up against our waking world, in which horrors are perpetuated and into which people can and will vanish for reasons we can never hope to understand. No rhyme, no reason, just an implacable alien hunger, motivation utterly divorced from any sense we could hope to make.

Just as it never stops being about real people, Absentia never stops being a story of loss and how we deal with it. It just makes it more and more nightmarish, and it ultimately ends how it began, with people negotiating the space between life and death by attempting to exchange death for life, only to discover the futility of imposing human logic on something completely divorced from it. People vanish all the time, and all we can do about it is tell ourselves stories that explain it in safe ways, and keep up appearances, maintain the search, keep hope alive, even as the horrible truth lingers in the corners of our perception.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix

1 comment:

  1. Finally got around to seeing this movie. Thanks so much for the recommendation. Apart from the 30 second exposition of the disappearances by Callie in which she recited the history of legends, I can't think of any part that disappointed me. Really haunting.