By Matthew Wollin.
A good idea goes a long way, and in this department, Absence starts out ahead of the crowd. Liz (Erin Way), a woman in her third trimester, falls asleep one night and wakes up to find that she’s no longer pregnant and she has no memory of what transpired. This killer premise draws together a cinematic dread of the unknown with timely issues of a woman’s control of her own body, and functions as a deft, chilling metaphor for the anxieties that have rendered birth-control such an urgent debate on the national stage. It is such a fantastic setup that it would be tempting to read the whole film as an extended fantasia on a woman’s right to choose, with every bump in the night a standing in as metaphors for fears of a different kind.
Alas, writer and director Jimmy Loweree seems content to let the premise languish in the hospital where it is first introduced, using it instead as the impetus to get our three protagonists into a cabin in the mountains where, as you might expect, things do not go well. Along with her husband Rick (Eric Matheny) and brother Evan (Ryan Smale), Liz takes refuge from the press and accusations of infanticide in a lovely lakeside town. They settle into their new environs with relative ease and comfort – excluding the occasional inexplicable nosebleed, strange light in the woods, and a fair amount of family friction.
That last point of conflict is primarily due to the excessively talkative presence of Evan, a film student who has taken to documenting the proceedings for the sake of a school project, and whose footage constitutes the whole of the film. Students working on projects have played a crucial role in many a horror narrative, and its use here is effective if a little tiresome. That is due mostly to the fact that Evan is kind of insufferable, cracking bad jokes and patting himself on the back for supporting his sister even as he presses her to relive the worst details of her baffling experience. The amount of time he spends onscreen suggests that Loweree agrees with Evan’s assessment of himself, and the choice to experience the narrative primarily though his eyes proves to be a fatally trying one.
Thankfully, as Liz, Erin Way has a natural, unforced presence, and comports herself with a grace that anchors the narrative and draws you in whenever she is given any portion of the screen. With her oversized, kewpie-doll features and sad charisma, Way easily reminds the viewer of the creepiness of the film’s premise and the violation that has been visited on her small frame. Her conviction goes a long way towards enhancing the performance of her co-stars as well, including an army-veteran husband with a kind heart and disappointing lack of personality, and Megan, a love interest for her brother played by Stephanie Scholz—who also did costumes and hair and make-up—whose portrayal of a vapid recent college grad is almost too accurate.
But found-footage horror is a genre whose success ultimately rests on the efficacy of its technique rather than the depth of its characters, and Absence competently conjures up creepy happenings with convincing minimalism. This particular story turns out to involve something vaguely paranormal and a lot of eerie blue light, and though it never gets much farther than that in its world-building, the director’s command of camera angles and pacing is good enough to keep you wanting to see what happens next.
By the time we reach the denouement with a shot that is both a clever implementation of the found-footage technique and a disappointing, if understandable non-resolution, it seems as though the Absence of the title refers to the style of the movie rather than its premise, which is to imply as much as it can by showing as little as possible. That is to be expected from a film whose credits include so many people with the same last name as the director, and it is to Loweree’s credit that the bare-bones production value is mostly a strength rather than a detriment. If only he had given the camera to Liz instead of Evan, and let her guide us through her eerie predicament and away from her brother’s juvenilities, then he would have had something really special on his hands.
Matthew Wollin is a writer and award-winning filmmaker based in New York City. He has written for numerous publications, including The Awl and Pop Matters. His films have shown in the Brooklyn Film Festival and the Columbus International Film and Video Festival, and he is currently producing a feature for later this year. He graduated from Williams College.
Absence opens at the Quad Cinema in New York and the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, OH on July 5th. The film will be released on demand August 6th.