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February 22, 2011

Movie Review: The Absent (2011)

Here is an ambitious low budget feature shot in the quaint little town of Twisp in Central Washington state. The actors and cinematographer were all flown in from LA to ensure a professional-looking film, but most of the minuscule crew were locals; many of whom I am proud to say I have worked with on stage and in my own local movie productions. The result is a slick-looking little thriller with a unique tone; and, while not entirely successful, it is well worth a look.

The story, set in the fictitious town of Liberty, hinges on twin brothers Vincent and Oscar Burton (real-life twins Bryan and Denny Kirkwood). In the opening flashback, we see their parents plotting to kill Oscar for insurance money. Oscar fights back and poisons them both, sending him to prison for a long, long time. Jump to twenty-five years later when the grown up Vincent is now the town high school science teacher. Vincent, not quite the squeaky clean role model he appears to be, is having an affair with one of his students, Katie (Yvonne Zima). Like a lot of small towns, Liberty is filled with dirty little secrets, and lots of them get exposed as people begin to die at the hands of a mysterious killer. Vincent comes to believe it's his twin, Oscar, who has escaped from prison and returned to wreak his vengeance on the town. The local Sheriff (Samuel Ball) is narrowing in on the suspected Oscar as the body count rises, but Vincent my just be helping to keep his brother out of sight.

The title refers to the growing list of absentees in Vincent's class as the "student bodies" begin to pile up. But it is also an allusion to the missing twin, Oscar. You can't really call this a horror movie, it's more of a thriller or a murder mystery. There are no real scares, but, to his credit, I don't believe that was director Sage Bannick's intention. What atmosphere and tension are generated here is based entirely on ambiguities: keeping the viewer off-guard by never quite showing us everything. And although there is a little confusion at times because of this
(there are a few times when a little more information would have helped), and you may figure out what's going on before the movie reveals it, the device generally works and gives the film its unique edge. Kudos here go to writers Damon Abdallah, Sage Bannick and Ari Bernstien. It's a fairly bold way to tell a commercial story, when most of these kinds of films today tend to hand you everything on a platter, overflowing with unnecessary grue.

And that brings us to the gore effects. They are minimal and sparing, giving us what is needed to propel the story without wallowing in it. Another touch I found refreshing, even though it may disappoint gorehounds. Special effects make-up is credited to Jamie Kenmire, but I know from inside information that Ms. Kenmire became ill during the production and much of this worked was done on the fly by production assistant Jeremy Lindholm, who worked so tirelessly on my film TIKI six years ago. It all works convicngly, and, as I said, its spareness was appreciated by this critic.

One scene involves a cabin burning to the ground. This scene was particularly impressive for a very, very low budget feature. They obviously built an actual structure and torched it to the ground. No phony cgi or supimposure or minature effects. It adds an impressive reality not seen in most films made at this budget. Though one wonders if any of the local burning ordinances were overlooked. Shhh. I'm not even going to ask.

The Absent is an unpretentious thriller with a fairly slick patina which tells a familiar story in an off-beat manner. It shows what can be accomplished with some drive and dedication on a very modest budget. If you are looking for something to rent as a change of pace from blockbusters and in-your-face horror films, you might just find it here.

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