If audiences experience a fleeting pang of unease—never fear, but maybe a mild shudder—while watching Absence, it will be thanks solely to the film’s promising premise: A young woman, seven months pregnant, awakes to discover that the baby she’s carried nearly to term has mysteriously disappeared from her womb. Imagine for a moment what someone like Roman Polanski could do with such a loaded nightmare scenario. And then marvel at how thoroughly it’s wasted in this threadbare throwaway, a found-footage fright flick so nondescript that the vanished-fetus angle could be trimmed away entirely and it would make almost no discernible difference to the finished product. For hefty swathes of Absence’s slim running time, it’s easy to forget about the mystery that supposedly drives the movie. The characters certainly do.
Hectic early scenes in a hospital, along with an ominous textual statistic about cesarean theft, give the misleading impression that this will be an unsettling visit to Rosemary’s Baby territory. A simple gynecological glance could dispel the understandable rumors that terrified mother Erin Way aborted her child, but that lapse in logic is the least of the film’s problems. Looking to escape the accusations of the community, Way and husband Eric Matheny flee for rural solitude, with the woman’s wiseass, film-school brother (Ryan Smale) in tow. Why is he perpetually documenting their therapeutic getaway, especially when one of the points of the trip is to escape the harsh glare of camera lenses? It’s for a class project, which seems like a pretty flimsy excuse to turn healing time into reality TV. Then again, none of the characters dwell too long on feelings of loss or paranoia. Once at the obligatory cabin in the woods, Matheny and Smale pass the hours with pranks and insults, while the latter romances a local (Stephanie Scholz) and Way becomes a background player in her own story. Because this is a found-footage movie, her marginalization can be chalked up to Smale’s artistic narcissism. That’s any easy out for the real man behind the camera, co-writer, and director Jimmy Loweree, who seems more interested in boys-behaving-badly shenanigans than the disturbing circumstances surrounding his heroine’s lost child.
Putting off the scary stuff until the final reel—though the identity of the baby-snatcher is teased very early—Absence often resembles an especially aimless mumble-comedy, framed through the viewfinder of a cheap digital camera and occasionally interrupted by “interviews” that remind viewers of the mind-boggling tragedy the film seems determined to stray from whenever possible. One of the pleasures of found footage is the opportunity to just calmly observe characters during their supposed downtime. But this bottom-scraping addition to the genre pushes that element to its breaking point, lavishing undue attention upon a smarmy camera addict instead of diving headlong into the dread of its horror-melodrama conceit. There’s absence here, all right—of scares, of imagination, and of a good reason to pick up that camera in the first place.