Absentia, a horror film from director Mike Flanagan, opens on a pregnant woman walking the streets of a serene suburban neighborhood. This is Tricia, and we watch as she pulls down tattered flyers from telephone poles only to replace them with fresh copies. These are missing person posters, and they bear the likeness of her absent husband. Daniel vanished seven years ago, without a note or an argument or the least signs of struggle. Now, however reluctantly, his wife is ready to declare him legally dead. The question of his fate still bothers her, and Flanagan gives us a few, rapid-fire fantasies in which Tricia imagines what may have happened to her husband, but she has mostly come to terms with this mystery. Her little sister, on the run from some demons of her own, arrives to help Tricia pack the man’s things. In these quiet streets, though, the sisters will discover an answer of sorts to the riddle of Daniel’s disappearance. Despite their desire to know why this kind man would have just walked out on his life one evening, they will find that there are some questions better left unanswered.
The vocabulary of grief is chiefly one of loss. This observation is all but a tautology, but it bears paying some attention to. Whether they are taken by death or vanish from our lives due to relational or geographic alienation, we lose our loved ones. How much more terrible is this absence when we are left with no answers, no knowledge of where they have gone, not to mention why they were lost to us? “I just want to know,” say lovers and friends and family members of the missing, “I just want to know what happened to her, to him.” Anything, we hear, would be better than never knowing where they went, if they are out there still or not, if they suffered. While most horror movies focus on the suffering of characters or the events which lead to pain and death, most do not devote much time to the emotional wreckage left behind. And if they deal with this lack of crucial knowledge, it is usually only in order that the full revelation of the loved one’s fate will carry more weight. In Absentia, this enigma forms the very center of a story about love, loss, and unfathomable horror. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that they recognize that such a story must be composed of as many parts grief as it is of terror.
Absentia is a fine example, perhaps one of the best in decades, of what has been labeled quiet horror. This is a tradition which has seen far more success in horror literature than in cinema as it relies on moods, ideas, and implication, all difficult to catch on the screen if not actually “unfilmable.” This movie does an incredible job of communicating the spiritual unease in which Daniel’s family has been left, a malaise which is, in the opening sequences, more bittersweet than terrifying. When this disquiet breaks through into the film, it initially does so in quick, hard to parse moments. Nightmares, hallucinations, eerie encounters: what Tricia and her sister Callie initially experience may be a psychological response to their need to say goodbye without having any real answers. They, certainly, think so, at least at first… They will find, though, that this neighborhood hides secrets darker than those a sudden disappearance typically calls to mind. Absentia draws its audience into its mysteries with subtlety and a grace not often associated with horror film. An early shot, in which Callie jogs through the neighborhood, into a dark underpass, and out to a view of the city, establishes a beautiful note on which the rest of the film will elaborate. Twisted truths lurk just beneath the mundane world: this is the promise of much quiet horror, and the technique is one of a most careful, almost glancing delineation of these disturbing realities.
Though there are a few moments of violence, these are quick and oblique. Rather than depend on extended torture sequences and explicit gore, which are perfectly acceptable devices in other sorts of horror narratives, Absentia relies on flashes of the bizarre and a carefully enunciated mood. Slowly but so effectively, Tricia’s house and the street on which it sits are invested with an ambiance of sad dread. One of the film’s many excellences is the way in which it sustains this emotional dimension while slowly broadening the scope of the piece. This is aided by the strong performances of the film’s two leads, Courtney Bell and Katie Parker, both of whom bring naturalistic, understated responses to such a strange situation. Absentia is an odd horror movie, in that an unwary viewer who watches only every other scene would be justified in considering it a powerful, yet realistic, “dramedy” about characters learning to deal with the loss of a loved one. This makes their plight, when they finally get a clear sight of its scope, all the more devastating.
This attention to psychological details is one way in which the film builds an environment of subdued dread. Another way in which it does so is in its slow, deliberate parceling out of its revelations. While one character, toward the end, tries to put the pieces of this puzzle together, Flanagan is wise to leave this solution cursory at best, an updated fairy tale with the most awful questions unanswered. In this, Absentia resembles the best stories of Ramsey Campbell and Robert Aickman, two authors who excel in crafting uneasy mysteries and delightfully ambiguous resolutions. The movies to which it is most closely related must include Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and George Sluizer’s Dutch masterpiece The Vanishing. These films both dealt with the sudden loss of a beloved, as well as the maddening uncertainty which often follows such devastation. Absentia does not leave its audience frustrated: we are given an answer as to Daniel’s disappearance. The film does not, however, fully outline its horrors, leaving most of the details to our own imagination. It gives us just enough information to make us glad we do not have more. That, or, for connoisseurs of terror, enough to make us wish we had so much more. And speaking of devastating: Absentia springs at least two “twists” which I, for one, never saw coming. Far from arbitrary or contrived, these sudden turns in the plot make perfect sense, particularly in retrospect. This movie earns its surprises. They do not only add the luster of shock to the experience, they lend a strangely “realistic” sense to an increasingly weird situation. Tragedy, despite the shape we eventually give to it, usually springs on us in this way: without foreshadowing, without warning.
What gives these narrative strategies an added layer of significance in Absentia is the way in which they reflect the subject. Horror stories often give a rather full account of the nightmares with which they are concerned. They use familiar monsters from folklore, give serial killers warped backstories meant to explain their deviations, and outline the supernatural origins of monsters, or at least the “rules” which they follow. In general, they give audiences the comforting sense that while the darkness may not always be fought successfully, it can at least be understood. Even their twists usually serve the purpose of making more intelligible what has seemed opaque until then. The killer is revealed to be the one person you never suspected, the hero was a ghost all along, etcetera. Real terrors, however, rarely yield such satisfactory answers. As we are reminded almost daily, the world is filled with hideous tragedies we may never fully comprehend. The adjective “senseless” is regularly applied to such situations, but how often is this an evasion on our parts? The thought that some nightmares are simply beyond our ken may simply be more tolerable than the notion that there are answers, but they slip the nets of our understanding. Capturing this sense, that an ultimate explanation may be possible but just out of reach, is notoriously hard for artists (though they stand a better chance of communicating such an idea, arguably, than do scientists and others restricted to the use of reason). Absentia not only conveys this horror of the unknown (and of unknowing), it does so in ways perfectly in line with its theme.
Tricia and Callie hazard plenty of guesses as to what has happened to Daniel, as does Detective Mallory (who has gone from investigating this case to getting rather close to one of its principals) and other policemen. One of them may even get close to what has really happened. The awful truth, though, lies beyond anything but direct experience (a lesson also brought across in The Vanishing). Absentia drops hints, here and there, and even gestures toward an underlying logic to the situation, but in the end reason recedes before the darkness. For all too many people who have lost their loved ones to a sudden disappearance, there will never be an acceptable answer.
Absentia deserves praise for its skillful development of tension, its luminous, yet eerie direction, and the unique nightmare it unfolds. What makes the film stick in my mind, though, and what I think will make it outlast many of its bigger-budgeted cousins, is the emotional truth at its core. Our beloved lost do not usually just vanish, fade with time and healing: they reside in some dark place within us. Making peace with their absence may be up to us, but such closure does not always accompany whatever answers we may uncover. To quote the book of Ecclesiastes, “with much knowledge comes much sorrow.” I resist the thesis (argued by plenty of authors I admire) that horror is necessarily recuperative or reassuring in nature, that its essence lies in summoning fears and then banishing them. Absentia banishes few, if any, of its shadows. Its outlining of grief, though, and the manner in which it symbolizes our experience of the lost, speaks more truth than many consoling narratives ever accomplish. That we can also experience Absentia as a finely wrought piece of entertainment is a testimony to the potentials of the genre and, more particularly, to the talents of these gifted filmmakers.