Seven years after Daniel Riley’s unexplained disappearance, his wife Tricia is finally able to declare him legally dead. With the help of her sister Callie, a recovering addict who’s finally setting down after years of drifting, she begins the process of moving on with her life. But when Callie encounters a homeless man (who asks her the cryptic question, “You can see me?”) in a foot tunnel during her morning jog, it kicks off a series of events which leads Callie to believe that Daniel’s disappearance isn’t just an isolated incident. She’s right…and the same force that took Daniel has now turned its attention to those he left behind…

Absentia is such an astonishingly good film that works on so many levels, I barely know where to begin with discussing it.

I’m mainly a story guy so I guess I’ll start there. A lot of my favorite stories are about the emotional wreckage left behind by tragedy. I’d think that’s the kind of story that would be tailor-made for the horror genre, but I can’t really think of many horror movies I’ve seen that work with it well. So I’m delighted to find a film that understands how people do and don’t get on with their existences in the wake of events that transform lives in not-so-positive ways…instead of using them as half-assed character or plot points. (Castle Freak, I’m lookin’ at you.) I assume one probably expects to lose one’s spouse later in life, but I doubt that most people are prepared for that loss to come when they’re in their early twenties. Ditto for Callie’s struggles with addiction.

But as sad as they are, loss and addiction are natural events. They’re part of life as we understand it. But there’s also a chunk of Absentia that deals with the supernatural, or unnatural or whatever, the stuff that doesn’t behave according to rules we understand. I’m not going to reveal the nature of the beast to you here, not because it would constitute a spoiler (it would, but I could very easily tag it as such) but because if I did it would make the film sound like something it fundamentally isn’t. It would stop being, in concept, “the film with the creepy disappearances” and start being “the film with the stupid [whatever].” And it’s a testament to writer/director Mike Flanagan’s skill as a filmmaker that he’s able to put the things that look stupid on paper into this movie and make them work.

I mean, the story and the plotting aren’t perfect–I would have liked a bit more concrete and coherent delineation of Tricia’s relationship with Det. Mallory, and I did pause the film early on at one point and scream “No! That’s not what lucid dreams are at all!” at a character who should have known better. But for the most part those are quibbles. The story and characterization achieve exactly what they need to achieve and do so with success to spare.

I was also extremely impressed with Flanagan’s direction–he brings a palpable feeling of menace to the slightly run-down neighborhood the film’s set in, and can make even the most mundane of shots or locations trigger a sense of dread. (The various shots of the foot tunnel are the best examples.) A fantastic score by Ryan David Leack helps lay on the atmosphere. CG is deployed effectively, with subtlety and taste. And I’m particularly impressed that Flanagan and his production team achieved what they did on a comparatively paltry budget of $70k.

But, as is so often the case, the script, direction and production values don’t mean a thing without a cast that can sell the material; fortunately, the ensemble (largely consisting of unknowns or bit-parters–Doug Jones, who gets one scene as the homeless man in the tunnel, is the closest thing this film has to a recognizable name) hits it out of the park. Katie Parker (Callie) and Courtney Bell (Tricia) put in exceptionally brave and credible performances–we’re talking the same league as the leads of my beloved Martyrs. Morgan Peter Brown makes a strong impression in Daniel’s few scenes. Dave Levine is the weakest of the primary cast as Ryan Mallory, the lead detective on the case and Tricia’s love interest, but he’s also got the weakest and least well-formed character of the group. Other supporting actors are also great in supporting roles, including Jones and James Flanagan.

While Absentia has several elements that don’t work as well as they could and keep the film from achieving…not exactly perfection, but whatever it is that separates low four-star ratings from high ones, it can’t be denied that it’s a remarkable achievement that deserves to be regarded, in future, as a high-water mark of what the genre could achieve in the early 2010s. Highly recommended.

My rating: 8 of 10.

United States. 87 minutes. Directed by Mike Flanagan. Starring Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Morgan Peter Brown, Justin Gordon, James Flanagan, Scott Graham, Doug Jones.

ABSENTIA poster

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