Beware the Trade: Absentia and Loss

[I love this film and think everyone should see it. But Andrea’s overview is very interesting. Note that it contains a bunch of spoilers! -FM]

Absentia (2011)

Absentia is about loss and torment, elements that form a solid foundation for any horror film. Unfortunately, even with all the missing people, missing pets, and misplaced watches, Absentia is filled more with suspense than scares so if you’re looking for terror and gore, keep moving. However, if you enjoy more cerebral, psychological horror films, this could be your thing.

The opening sequence shows us Trish, a very pregnant young woman as she is replacing the weathered “Have You Seen Me?” flyers that she’d put up some time ago. You might be thinking, as I did, “Oh! That’s sad. She’s expecting a baby and its father is missing. This is going to get dark. Cool!” However, as with all horror/suspense films (good and bad) things are rarely as simple as they first appear.

We soon find out that Trish’s husband, Daniel, has actually been missing for more than just a few weeks. In fact, Trish has endured his loss to an unknown fate for seven years. She has but one small, agonizing step left between her and closure: filing for a certificate of “Death in Absentia.”

The Helpful but Unstable Sister

Fortunately for Trish, she has the support of her younger sister, Callie, who comes to stay after a long absence of her own, one that included a few stints in rehab. Hoping to be a good sister and aunt, Callie hands Trish a little Three Billy Goats Gruff storybook. An absolutely useless trifle to give an expectant mother, but does offer a bit of foreshadowing to the story.

As the sisters get reacquainted Trish talks about how, through the long years of waiting, wondering, and hoping, she has conjured up a multitude of possibilities to explain his disappearance; everything from amnesia to alien abduction. The most comforting of her imaginings is the “amnesiac scenario” in which Daniel was bonked on the head or some such thing, but is alive and well and happy somewhere, just not with her.

She coyly avoids spilling the identity of her mystery sperm donor. But why? Because, that’s why.

The Boyfriend

The detective assigned to Daniel’s missing person case, Ryan Mallory, stops over to check on Trish and it isn’t awkward at all. He is introduced to Callie, heartily agreeing with her that Trish should move to a safer neighborhood, something he’s been encouraging her to do for years.

Being pregnant and inexplicably alone adds leverage to Mallory’s professional concern for her well-being. By now you’ve had time to do the math and know that it is impossible for the little stranger Trish is incubating to belong to her presumably dead husband.

People! Hold back the judgment. She obviously waited at least five years before allowing herself the unprotected comfort of another man. Despite Trish’s adroit avoidance, Callie can clearly see the gun-carrying elephant in the room. Mystery date spotted and no fucks given.

Unfortunately, the closer Trish gets to closure, the weirder things get. Suddenly her dead and very angry husband starts popping up willy-nilly to abuse the shit out of her. Is he truly a vindictive ghost or merely the manifestation of her guilt for even thinking of moving on?

The Man in the Tunnel

Unaware of her sister’s silent suffering, Callie is having a little adventure of her own. During her daily jogs to a local park, she takes a shortcut through a nearby tunnel.

One morning she sees an unconscious man and his stylish pocket watch propped against the wall. Mistaking him for a fellow addict, she dismisses his request for a trade and pleading for her to get a message to his son, Jaime.

Not being a monster, Callie later returns with food for the emaciated man, but he’s moved on. Back at the apartment, she finds bits of old, rusty watches and whatnot on the doorstep of the apartment.

She concludes, as anyone would, that the deranged man had left her a gift in exchange for the meal. Callie heads back to the tunnel, intending to return his magpie treasure, but the man isn’t there.

As she’s leaving the little pile on the ground, a young man walks up with a garbage bag in his hand. He cryptically remarks, “Don’t leave that there” before leaving something there himself. Least helpful Good Samaritan ever.

Calling the Cops

Later, when Callie finds another, more generous stash of found objects under the covers of her perfectly made bed, she contacts the police because she didn’t have the number for the Ghostbusters.

The cops are not amused by being asked to check things out. In their umbrage, the baby-daddy detective and his loathsome, gum-chomping partner, Det Lonergan, accuse Callie of leaving the door unlocked, putting her pregnant sister at risk. How careless to provide a perfect opportunity for someone to enter and not steal anything!

The police remove the evidence, taking note and offense at her dilated pupils. Calling the cops while impaired is never a good idea.

Daniel Returns

Trish is finally ready to move on, willfully ignoring her maybe-ghost-husband who continues to bully her. The “Death in Absentia” certificate and wedding rings go in the drawer with the photo of her and Daniel.

Done and done. But not really.

Daniel suddenly reappears, literally out of nowhere, assaulted, abused, and severely traumatized. After a quick visit to the ER, the doctors discover, somehow, that his stomach is filled with small animal bones. He’s sent home to recover there. Nevermind the fact that he clearly needs a lengthy hospital stay, intense psychiatric treatment, and heavy pain meds. (Trish’s walk-it-off health plan is absolute shit so it’s a good thing he heals quickly.)

There’s no easy explanation for his disappearance or return. The “content amnesiac” hypothesis is out and even the alien-abduction theory is untenable since it’s well known that visitors from space are gentle probers and not given to beating the living hell out of their guests. Maybe when Daniel can speak again the matter will be cleared up.

In the meantime, rather than waiting for Daniel to heal well enough to call his parents, Trish decides she’ll give them the news that their son is alive, sparing them the “just barely” part. While his parents excitedly purchase plane tickets, Trish and Daniel try to reconnect. Not an easy thing to do after seven years, a boyfriend, and an impending birth. But the catharsis of slapping Daniel about the head and neck for putting her through that shit helped a lot.

Say Goodbye to Daniel

Callie is a well-meaning and kind sister-in-law, tending to Daniel while Trish is at work — and out in the garage making out with her cop boyfriend. Just as everyone starts calming the fuck down, Callie’s inadvertent trade deal escalates when the demon monster roach decides that, yes, in fact, take backs are allowed, and resnatches Daniel.

She hysterically explains that to Trish that it was a demon monster roach’s fault, not hers. This is where her one drug-induced hallucination about bugs under her skin comes back to haunt her. To make things worse, her relapse doesn’t go unnoticed and the gum-gnawing dick of a cop notices her dilated pupils. Again.

Daniel hasn’t come home and Trish is asked to file a second missing person report. She considers calling Daniel’s parents, but has no idea how to tell them their son is missing. Again. No. She decides to break the news in person, that way they might not notice the whole pregnancy thing because she can’t even right now.

When a pretzel of a dead man is found at the at the tunnel, conveniently within trotting distance for a pregnant woman, Trish and Callie rush to see if the corpse belongs to anyone they know. Trish is relieved it isn’t Daniel and Callie tells the police that she’d the mangled guy alive just the other day. Well, he’s dead now.

The police identify him as someone who’s been missing since 1995 and that he had a son named Jaime. The police promptly arrest Jaime, now a grown man, after he’s caught leaving an adorable puppy in one of his regular garbage bag deliveries at the tunnel. Missing pets explained, future serial killer pegged.

Callie the Sluth

Frustrated by the relentless incredulity of everyone involved, Callie turns sleuth. According to her thorough movie-Google search, every civilization has stories of unseen terrors, sneaky and quick like trapdoor spiders, pouncing from caves and holes to whisk away their oblivious prey.

These creatures from “underneath” are invisible when they aren’t visible, can pass through solid matter, and make a tidy bed when so inclined. Callie decides that one of these evil, and rather unctuous, demon monster roaches has been lurking underneath the concrete passthrough under the highway since the time it was a mere footpath.

But this particular entity is also quite clever, having adapted from snatching the occasional passerby to a renewable source of victims. Beware the trade! If only the Good Samaritan had said something sooner.

Bye Bye Trish

Daniel’s blissfully relieved parents arrive looking for their son. Trish tell them they’d just missed him and they leave. I suspect they never liked Trish anyway. They may have felt some comfort if they had known that Trish and her unborn baby would be dragged away by the demon monster roach later that night.

Callie had warned her, but once a victim of a mental health crisis always a liar. Distraught, Callie comes up with a plan to get her sister back. She prints out the results of her extensive online research, placing it in an envelope to be found by the boyfriend detective.

Trade!

In a final expression of sisterly love, Callie faces the tunnel and offers herself as a trade. Why she anticipates her sister and not a handful of buttons, there’s no telling. But the sound of previous victims screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” assures her that nothing could go wrong and her sacrifice will totally be worth it.

Breathlessly waiting for the fulfillment of the exchange, Callie is horrified to find that she hadn’t made her expectation of would be tossed back from underneath. It seems that demon monster roaches are devious fuckers. Rather than returning Trish, the demon monster roach bastard spits out her unborn child.

This is by far the best moment in the movie and not nearly enough time or effort was spent on it. It took a moment to even realize it was supposed to be a fetus and not a spleen. A truly impressive concept poorly executed.

The end of the movie brings us back to where we started, except now it’s the mourning detective who is stapling up flyers, asking anyone to call with information about Trish and Callie. When he sees a broken Callie standing in the entrance of the tunnel, his cop instincts kick in. No point in getting close enough to see her dilated pupils, so he walks away.


Absentia poster taken under Fair use.

2 thoughts on “Beware the Trade: Absentia and Loss

  1. Oh, that sounds good. Very Stephen King-like to take an everyday thing, say a watch, and make it ominous. “The Woman In Black” did something similar with seawater having tides.

    What essentially works about horror stories is we all know we’re going to die, but we’d choose to enjoy our lives rather than dwell on the grim details. Ultimately, what’s a worse way to die? Getting cancer and spending years in oncology clinics, or having our faces quickly ripped off by the monster in “Alien”? (Whose method of murder is never precisely clear.) Most of us fear the pain and terror of death more than the death itself. Which is why there’s no horror story about “getting bumped on head by stray meteor.” It’s all about the dread.

  2. Exactly! I had an entire partial “essay” about that very thing (pretty much), but Frank edited it because I got too dark, or tedious. I don’t recall exactly. ;-p

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