Absentia (2011)

Absentia first published by Little White Lies

“When the mind can’t deal immediately with trauma, with grief, guilt – it’s sometimes easier to create something to help us process it.”

So says psychiatrist Dr Elliott (Scott Graham) to his heavily pregnant patient Tricia (Courtney Bell). Tricia has certainly experienced more than her fair share of trauma, grief and guilt. Her husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) vanished one day without explanation or trace, and only now, over seven years since his disappearance, is she beginning to think about moving on, both from the rented home that they once shared in outer LA, and from her obsession with finding him again. Yet as Tricia finally goes through the process of filing for his ‘death in absentia’ certificate, Daniel keeps coming back to haunt her in terrifying lucid dreams. Meanwhile her wayward younger sister Callie (Katie Parker), who had herself been lost to drug addiction for five years, has also returned to help bury the past with Tricia – but after a series of strange encounters and mysterious reemergences, all apparently connected to a freeway underpass near the house, Callie begins to wonder whether it might be more than just personal demons with which the two damaged sisters are grappling.

As an ultra-low-budget, straight-to-video genre film, writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Absentia may be as below the radar as some of its lost characters, but it would be a mistake to overlook this hidden gem, elevated by the great subtlety of its writing, the lived-in conviction of its two central performances, and by Flanagan’s careful handling of narrative twists and turns that pivot around a gaping chasm of ambiguity. If the fragile lives of Tricia and Callie are limned with fly-on-the-wall realism, then the same plain style is used to characterise Tricia’s nightmarish visions of the revenant Daniel (eerily intruding upon the most banal of settings), while characters’ casual, contradictory theories about the local disappearances are also realised visually with equal vividness, so that distinctions between reality, speculation and hallucination are never entirely clear, and the rational is made to coexist uneasily with the supernatural.

“Stranger things have happened,” concludes local police detective Mallory (Dave Levine), who has a personal as well as professional stake in what happens to Tricia and her unborn child. “People get lost, people get found.” Yet here, though the characters’ emotional dilemmas certainly ring true, it is never entirely apparent just what has happened. For Flanagan’s strange, sinuous story – part updated fairytale, part suburban horror, part allegory of lower-middle-class alienation and abandonment – tracks a tradition of loss and despair that it dresses in the guise of genre to help us process what would otherwise be an unfathomably deep, dark void allowing no easy entrance or egress. Here (may)be monsters – but there will always be souls forsaken and the forgotten, inhabiting the realms hidden beneath our consciousness, no matter whether they are dragged down by interdimensional insectoids or find their own way to the unseen depths. Absentia is their story, deftly told with all the arresting (if easily ignored) impact of a missing persons poster.

© Anton Bitel