Absentia is one of my absolute favorite horror films. I don’t measure my enjoyment of horror films quite the way I do others. Normally I look at both my enjoyment the first time around and how it holds up after a few rewatches. With horror, I don’t want to watch it too often. I want to forget the jumps and the twists, so that I’ll still get tense when the lights go out and nothing has gone wrong in almost three minutes. So, instead, I pick favorites based on how much they haunt me. Despite not seeing Absentia for two years before I watched it for this review, I’ve thought of it more than any other horror film I’ve seen. It’s damn good.
The title comes from the legal term “in absentia,” meaning that legal proceedings are going on despite the absence of something. In this case, Daniel Riley disappeared seven in years ago, and his wife Tricia is having him declared dead in absentia. She misses him. She loves him. She wants him to stay in the potentially reversible category of missing, not the rather permanent one of dead.
Also, her bills have piled up, her life has been on hold for seven years, and she’s pregnant. It’s time.
Her sister Callie, a recovering drug addict, visits to support her through the process. While she’s there, they both begin seeing things they can’t quite explain, but that seem to center around the concrete tunnel where so many in the neighborhood have disappeared.
I won’t give away the nature of this story’s monster or what it does, because the way this film builds the suspense is too good to spoil. Furthermore, it’s not really necessary to the great idea of Absentia. Unlike some stories, which use the monsters as clear metaphors for something, Absentia uses the confusion of the characters, whose lives are being torn apart by events they can’t begin to explain, to talk about how we deal with that. What do we do when life isn’t even willing to give us the closure of answers?
Callie and Tricia try everything; substance abuse, blame, religion, science, outrage, meditation, and when everything else fails, stories. Pure, fabricated guesses of what might have happened, what might be going on. Absentia shows us all of them, shows us the ultimate futility of them, and does not for a moment blame its characters for resorting to them. It simply invites us to witness, understand, and empathize. Unlike so many horror movies, which flatten and stereotype its protagonists, Absentia makes them so human you will cry.
There is so much love in this movie, and not sappy, idealized love. It has messy, frustrating love directed towards messy, frustrated people. It also isn’t love that is magically strong enough to undo all the evil spells or stop bad things from coming. It’s just there, warm and real. There is a moment with a hug, and then after the hug there are bad things that the hug couldn’t stop. That’s okay. At least it was there when it could be, doing what good it could.
When I talk about ideas, I don’t always mean answers. Absentia doesn’t have any answers to what you do when there are no answers. That would defeat the point. It’s about reminding us that sometimes there aren’t any, and appreciating the heartbroken guesses of the people left behind.