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Does this indie film tunnel too deep and need to be pronounced dead in absentia, or do the masses deserve to know about a diamond in the rough?

Intro by Phil and Chris

There’s something about tunnels, caves and confined spaces that give people the heebie-jeebies. But it’s rarely a feeling of outright terror; more like instinctive curiosity mixed with fear of the unknown, a sense that whatever lurks in the shadows not only wants but needs to be found. Transport this strange yet magnetic place to a modern setting like suburbia, and the lurking thing inside becomes more life-sized – say, a homeless drug addict as opposed to a towering troll. The threat can be messily human, but so can the personal discoveries.

In a low-budget, minimally-set, small-cast film in the fashion of Paranormal Activity without the queasy-cam, writer-director Mike Flanagan brings us Absentia. Set in the ‘burbs outside of Hollywood, Tricia, a mom-to-be, begins the process of declaring her husband dead in absentia after he mysteriously disappeared seven years prior. Severely pregnant and in need, her wandering, ex-addict sister, Callie, shows up to help Tricia clean out the apartment and deal with the paperwork and emotional drain of a dead husband. When the husband suddenly reappears as a haggard, ghost-like shell of his former self, it exposes old wounds for both sisters and Detective Ryan Mallory, a cop who became close to Tricia when he was assigned to her husband’s case. Looming over these wounded souls is a nearby foot tunnel with a long history of unexplained occurrences.

Absentia is Flanagan’s first feature-length film since his 2003 award-winning student offering, Ghosts of Hamilton Street, and it has all the makings of another festival gem, with a low-key setting and unorthodox sense of what constitutes horror. Indie films can be tricky, though: Promising pedigree or no, navel-gazing ennui is rarely suited for the primal trappings of a horror film. But should Flanagan simply meet genre expectations and earn a pat on the back for conforming, or can he upend them without getting lost along the way? Let’s look for the light at the end of the tunnel.

Wanna watch? Absentia is available on Netflix Instant.

Chris: Alright brother, first thoughts on the film: I believe that it has all the makings of a great movie. It’s absent of cheap thrills, with a dialogue-driven story, ambiguous alternatives and great acting that bring everything together in a fantastic film that has been honored in a dozen film festivals (including the prestigious Shriekfest and Toronto After Dark) and walked away with “Best Horror Film” awards in six of those. This film is a wet dream for buffs like Quentin Tarantino, who believe that audience participation makes a film. I was a tad disappointed in the ending, but we can talk about that later. What do you think, Phil?

Phil: I’m right with you. I enjoy going into a film with no preconceptions, and this one was a total darkhorse in the best possible way. It’s well-crafted, and aside from some clunky early scenes, barely any time is wasted telling a relatively engaging and deceptively intricate story. It clocks in at a lean 87 minutes, and Flanagan does a near-perfect job of balancing supernatural dread with slice-of-life pathos.

But I can hardly contain my damn self, so let’s dig right into the meat of it: The flashback sequences were my favorite feature of the whole film, used to simultaneously reveal and obscure important plot points. I was sucked in by each imagined rendering of what could have happened to the sisters and husband – rarely do thrillers purposely employ three to four unreliable narrative strains. The flashbacks were done in a way that never felt cheap or manipulative, which for me explains why this film was so well-received on the festival circuit: It never rushes to conclusions or forces them upon the audience, and I found myself buying into the supernatural themes without feeling duped.

As I watched, something kept nagging at me: Is Absentia a legitimate horror film, or is it more a psychological thriller about the ways in which lonely, disturbed people create their own realities? Or are the two interchangeable?

The depressed mom-to-be, Tricia, with what might be her husband.

Chris: I think you are dead on with the multiple story threads and the different ways this storyline can be perceived. After Tricia’s husband disappears (again), there’s a scene where she calls Callie out on being high. Callie reacts by telling a far-fetched story, then asks Tricia where she was at the time and we cut to a completely alternate scene of how the husband disappears… It was beautiful.

As for your question: I think this is a legit horror movie that examines how often people create their own realities, especially in difficult times. The way you asked that question reminded me of a novel I truly loathe, and how this movie is a much better example of creating your own reality. That novel would be Life of Pi, the story of a lone shipwreck survivor who spends several weeks in a lifeboat and slowly loses everyone he loves, except in his “reality,” he was stranded on the boat with a tiger and several animals, all representing his loved ones, that come aboard and die off because of the tiger or sea. Why I don’t like it is beside the point; the point is that Absentia gives you multiple realities and doesn’t ever tell you which one is real – it leaves you to decide. I love that. Your thoughts, Phil?

Phil: So that’s what Life of Pi is about… As a lit major, I’m embarrassed to say I never read it. But if Absentia uses a similar structure to superior ends, fuck it – I didn’t read half the novels I was supposed to anyway.

Talk of literature is a good segue to your multiple realities question: One of the most intriguing devices in fiction of any kind is the unreliable narrator. When a work employs an all-seeing, omniscient narrator – say, most Hollywood films – it has to play by certain rules, namely, that everything we’re told or shown is absolutely true. The characters can be untrustworthy, but the narrative itself can’t. Yet when a work forgoes that narrator and narrowly focuses on a single character (or consciousness, in the case of first-person lit), everything becomes filtered, with no restrictions on the “truth” of any given situation. Absentia isn’t a pure example of an unreliable narrator – it jumps too often between Callie and Tricia, with no “story in a story” framing device – but the flashbacks put an interesting spin on the time-worn device.

For an audience, a vividly-drawn unreliable narrator is endlessly alluring: Not only are we trying to parse out the plot, we’re constantly fighting against a narrator who can lie, exaggerate, hide or otherwise mess with expectations. If done right, the examples are noteworthy: James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Christopher Nolan’s Memento and, if I may be so bold, Absentia. Those flashbacks are used wonderfully and consistently to highlight what could have happened through the eyes of various characters, and the audience is left with the heavy lifting of deciding what is true. Even though I fought against this in the first half-hour of the film, once I knew it was going to challenge me, I was game. It’s commonplace for horror films to be ambiguous until a key moment – what up, every slasher ever – but it’s rare to find one that does so without a big reveal, over-explanatory dialogue or questionable twist. We’re shown a lot but not told much, making this film sparse on plot, aesthetic and, as one of its few downsides, pacing. Flanagan takes his sweet time building momentum, and I can easily imagine it might turn off some viewers. How about you? Are there times when the film lagged or felt lost?

The recovering drug addict, Callie, with a tunnel.

Chris: Wow dude, you just hit on so many things… Where do I start? To answer your questions, the whole movie is slow, and compared to the traditional Hollywood narrative, it is a sloth. I felt lost when the initial flashbacks were happening – like you, it was about an hour or so into it that I figured things out. I would argue, though, that this is not a downside to the film, but rather what makes it special. It doesn’t need to get you in, get you amped, feed you some bullshit and then give you the twist. It just needs you to want a little bit more – not much, as we both discovered when we were a bit put off by the flashbacks at first. But we still held on and wanted just enough extra to keep us holding on until we knew that we were going to be challenged. That is the true beauty of this film. The pacing, although (almost) deathly slow at times, is used as its greatest advantage.

As far as the unreliable narrator, I think that could be one of the film’s downfalls. I can think of a dozen or more friends who wouldn’t get that it requires so much from the audience, and would be upset at Flanagan for it. Now, with that being said, I will backtrack and flip 180-degrees and say it was the absolute best thing about the film. Using a device that isn’t often used – let alone used to perfection – gives festival judges a hard-on bigger than Tommy Lee’s. It is the reason why this film did so well on the festival circuit. The sole purpose of this film – and any from directors like Tarantino or Guillermo del Toro or Wes Anderson – is to engage the audience and force them to participate in the creation of the entire film. The ability to coax the audience into the world of a film and then force them to make it their own is what sets filmmakers (e.g.: Michael Bay and James Cameron) apart from the great filmmakers previously mentioned, and I would like to add Flanagan to that list. What in this film got you involved?

Phil: Your sense of “audience as collaborator” in Absentia (and other top-notch films) is spot on. It’s a mentality shared by those great filmmakers you mention, who trust their audience to fill in the missing pieces using real-life experience and emotion. Truth is, few of us know what it’s like to be chased by a serial killer, but everyone knows the dread of losing a loved one. Horror doesn’t require blood, guts, demons or devils – it doesn’t even need to have a traditional bad guy or evil force. The threats in Absentia are human weakness, longing, desire and frailty, all of which subtly paint a vivid and dreadful portrait of two lost souls.

Take a plot point I initially balked at, but now see as a wonderful bit of characterization: Toward the end of the film, Callie tries everything possible to rationalize what happened to Tricia’s husband, as well as explain the strange man she keeps seeing in the ominous tunnel. She builds an intricate theory based on caves as malevolent places, spanning from ancient legends of shadowy beasts to unexplained disappearances at the suburban tunnel. At first, the whole thing seemed unnecessary – it slowed the film down right as I was on the edge of my seat, and it felt overheated compared to the quietness of early scenes.

Looking back, though, it was a perfect snapshot of Callie as a fully-rounded person: Is her theory drug-induced paranoia? A plausible, fact-based explanation? An attempt to pull her sister from depression? All three? No matter the answer, it shades Callie as a fragile, lost character, someone who runs alone through Los Angeles, forgets to lock the front door, and keeps returning to a place she knows is dangerous, yet still seems self-reliant in ways her sister isn’t. For Callie, the horror of not knowing how to save Tricia (or herself) is as terrifying as having no explanation for the disappearances, and her unreliability keeps the audience from jumping to conclusions. It’s the age-old “fear of the unknown” trope, played out in a relatable and devastating way. Chris, give me your thoughts on these characters. Up until now, few of the films we’ve reviewed have relied so strongly on a small cast.

The absent husband, with receding hairline. And Callie.

Chris: Small cast, indeed – three main characters and three supporting characters is definitely a tiny cast. As far as the characters go: I wasn’t impressed with Tricia, Callie was awesome, and the cop, Detective Mallory, was a middle ground. As you point out, Callie is clearly the voice the audience needs. I remember wondering what kind of weirdness surrounded the tunnel, and shortly thereafter, Callie was doing research and we learn she is a druggy who is questioning everything herself. The cop was filler and had some good lines, but he really didn’t drive the story. Tricia wasn’t anything to be impressed by; she was the typical damsel who needed saving, except she wasn’t a damsel, she was a pregnant wife who was having an affair with the cop on her husband’s case.

The tunnel was an interesting character, too. It had mystery that never was solved by the film, and I liked that. But it also had something else: the ‘thing’ that Callie describes as a silverfish. Have you ever seen a silverfish, Phil?

Phil: I can’t say I’ve seen a silverfish… But then again, I’m not a smack head. I’m glad we never see any creatures outside of Callie’s flashback, when we’re shown glimpses of a spider-like beast scuttling about the apartment in search of Tricia’s husband. (The connection between spiders and heroin use is implied, although never directly stated. Another smart move.) That particular scene employs some so-so special effects, and is one of the few instances in which the small-budget production shows it’s seems.

But that’s not quite the point: As you mention, the tunnel itself is a character, and in the world of the film, it has the ability to produce whatever the character’s want to find, whether it be spiders or decrepit wanderers or a long-lost husband. That sort of power is much more frightening than a snarling critter, just as Freddy Kreuger is more disturbing in a dreamscape than the physical universe of Elm Street. It was wise of Flanagan to make the tunnel ambiguous – it leaves the film on a disturbingly open-ended note, with Detective Mallory questioning exactly what happened. Look at his eyes and you can tell he might be the tunnel’s next “victim,” either psychologically or literally. Chris, you mentioned earlier that the ending faltered a bit for you. How come?

Chris: That spider-like creature you see is a silverfish. I had no clue what it was and almost missed it, but the friend who recommended this movie to us went to college in Ohio, and she showed me a picture of a silverfish. Wow… I was scared just looking at the thing. And they can grow to three-quarters of an inch… Dude, scope a pic, because those things make spiders look like bunnies.

A gross, disgusting, awful silverfish. Gross.

The ending… I was pretty disappointed in it at first, mainly due to the lack of a solid conclusion. I believe I offhandedly told you (and excuse me folks – this is rather vulgar) it was about as open-ended as a female porn star. That doesn’t mean it was bad – I was just hoping for a little more resolution. But hope as I may, Flanagan drops me off on my couch with a solid, “Think about it, kid,” and heads on his merry way. That I do like. It has been awhile since I felt this challenged at the end of a film, but I’m enjoying it. You’ve even helped me to see more of his film than I did when I finished it. That’s kind of why I started this blog – more to have a convo with you about films, and challenge me to think outside of my (for lack of a better term) shitty view of movies. Thank you, Philly. Any final thoughts on this?

Phil: Dude, you don’t have a shitty view of movies. This post is apparently where I talk about that lit degree: One thing I miss about a college classroom is the conversation. Countless novels have left me cold upon a first reading, but following a spirited and intelligent discussion, they show entirely new dimensions. It doesn’t mean I end up loving them, per se – just that I gain new respect for the craft of fiction. We’re doing a similar thing with the Macabre Brothers, and like you say, it’s challenging us to think outside of the box (aka shitty view of movies).

Even though we’ve blabbed for far too long, I have a final thought. You mention Tricia seemed like the most trite, stereotypical character – an old-fashioned damsel in distress. But let me offer a different reading: For her, the tunnel doesn’t house monsters or even a force that took her husband, but the shame and guilt of having an affair with the cop. And not only an affair, mind you, but a child – something she never had with her husband. Tricia is burdened with intense emotional scars and maternal anxiety, and it’s hard to overlook the tunnel as a symbolic birth canal. Her unborn child is just as terrifying as a silverfish, and for me, it suggests (but doesn’t explain) why she also disappears in the end. She’s consumed by fear, and it ultimately catches up to her, therapy be damned. Did I read too far into it? Possibly, but at this point, I think we’ve proved this film is much more than standard genre fodder and is ripe for all sorts of interpretations. Any last words?

Chris: Alright, maybe I don’t have a shitty view of movies, but when it’s just me watching, I don’t challenge myself. I just accept them and like them, and this is forcing me to step outside my comfort zone. This film is insanely slow-paced and requires great audience attention. I’d say that everyone reading this post needs to hop on Netflix and watch Absentia, before Netflix does their thing and flips movies like houses. Last words: I loved this movie. There is not much to not like about it. And that is something to be said. What do you rate it, bro? I’m going to jump the gun and give it a 3: Perfection. Buy it and watch it over and over and over. Phil?

Phil: I couldn’t agree more. Even if this review seems to give away all the spoilers, trust me: Absentia is about the experience and mood, not cheap shocks or a twisty plot. My roommate only caught the last half hour when everything is supposedly revealed, and the next day, he watched the whole thing in astonishment. A definite 3.

Chris: 3 – Perfection. Buy it and watch it over and over and over
Phil: 3 – Buy that shit to support top-notch horror and a promising indie filmmaker

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