Review: WITHOUT, A Haunting, Harrowing Portrayal of Grief
Joslyn Jensen stars in Mark Jackson's powerful meditation on grief, sexuality and emerging adulthood.
There comes a point in Mark Jackson's debut feature where the tempo of tension is so great that even the sound of a door closing promises to shatter the entire frame into a million little pieces.
Shot on Whidbey Island in Washington state with a small cast and crew, Without may seem a fairly typical independent, as anyone who briefly scans a synopsis might think:
Joslyn, (Joslyn Jensen) a young woman barely out of high school, takes an eldercare position on a rural island. Her task is to mind the house and see to the basic needs of the largely vegetative Frank (Ron Carrier) while his family is away. Routines rot away into boredom which begins to unravel Joslyn's fragile emotional state. With no internet, and no cell phone she wallows in isolation, see-sawing back and forth between bonding with Frank and fearing him.
Honestly, I really can't stand writing synopses, descriptions, loglines. Trying to come up with an informative, simple and clever way of packaging a story... making sure the bow is tied up nice and tight is painfully not my cup of tea. Additionally Without is one of those films where talking about it could almost be a disservice to one's overall experience of watching it. Because words are words and cinema is cinema. And yet Without is exactly the kind of film I love talking, and thus, writing about.
From Jensen's beautifully nuanced, often rigorous performance to Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia's intimate and gauzy cinematography, Without is a micro-budgeted minimalist stroke of genius.
To quote a partial passage from the Metamorphoses by Ovid, which chronicles Echo, the nymph from Greek Mythology: "So She was turned away/ to hide her face, her lips, her guilt among the trees."
And so it goes for Joslyn. She smiles with a false resilience as a local offers her a lift to the family's homestead. Her hesitancy, her vulnerability is apparent from frame one: she is not just some kid out in the big bad world for the first time, making it on her own, taking whatever job she can get; she knows the big bad world all too well. She's running from something, denying. Frank's family puts on a different kind of face; a phoniness that's kept them together, wound up tight by routine and rules. Their guide to the house is referred to as the bible. Joslyn is expected to be a part of this hollow perfection, to keep things in check, to keep Frank happy with pears for lunch and the fishing channel - channel 354 - and only the fishing channel... and she dutifully nods and replies and then silence... And it is just her and Frank in the big bad woods.
Jackson's film may end up being rich--and perhaps abrasively so--in thematic pathos, but his narrative structure is bare-bones, offering the observant viewer a deep and rewarding experience. The story of why Joslyn came to this island, what personal tragedy she is hiding from does not unravel by means of wistful monologues by the fire with Frank. Fragments, little slivers come naturally through as she desperately stalks the halls for a cell signal, chats with the coffee house employee about the locals, or as she lies in bed at night, cycling through a series of pictures on her phone of a girl; a girl that exudes bliss, happiness and love.
In this way the film behaves somewhat like a mystery. For despite the thin, whispery threads we get on the events prior to the film's start we are never lost nor left out of what Joslyn is going through. Jackson is the kind of filmmaker who understands we live in a world without easy answers. Or if there are easy answers, they may be hard to detect, even near by, for a swell of emotions blinds us to them. In this way we are lost with Joslyn. As she descends past logic and into nightmare the film's incoherence then gives us a cohesion thats sets us on a home course. Madness, loss, a stifled guilt shine a light in on themselves, the shadows of the picture.
Joslyn is an echo of a place, of a social scene, of a youth tied and bound and related by technology. In one fateful scene she comes across an old computer and a dial-up modem hidden away in the garage. She decides to go about setting it up.
Along with her phone, the computer becomes something of a shrine for her, a vessel she can pour herself into. For without it she is without voice, without expression. In one startlingly moment this all comes pouring out in some twisted echo; seen, heard, felt (to borrow from Ovid's take on Echo again) "in her still singing limbs". The scene is exceedingly painful to watch and yet utterly captivating. I can't help but applaud Jensen for her exacting, impactful and precise performance here. It is of a kind one rarely sees.
The existential, emotional and sexual crises of Without are thus exponential. And despite my literary references used in this review, as stated before, Jackson explores these by the purest of cinematic means. Means steeped in topsy-turvy ambiguity, an ethereal realism accented by Dimmock and Garcia's increasingly claustrophobic cinematography where ghosts, monsters, madmen must be real then, this must be a horror film... yes, they've been teasing, toying with us this whole time... only it is the horrors of one's own doing, one's own denial, one's own torment. Joslyn's vulnerability is resilient in someway; a misguided feeling a part of a misguided act, where nurturing and bullying, hate and love hold each other's hands tightly if only because they don't know what else to do against the great inertia which swells in that house...
...And the image of a deer in the yard, and the girl's face on the screen, of wet hips and closed eyes. Frank a living corpse on his bed, and the fishing channel, 354. The bible, the whiskey in the liquor cabinet, the knives in the dishwasher, the door closing, and perhaps, finally, release.
This review was originally published in February 2011 in slightly different form. The winner of the 2011 Independent Spirit Award for "Someone to Watch", Without finally gets a release in the United States, with a limited theatrical run this Sunday and Monday, July 13 and 14, at the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles, with a future VOD release in the Fall.