LOCARNO — A chilling exercise in precisely measured ambiguity, Without offers an intense, troubling cinematic experience that may leave some frustrated at its enigmatic evasiveness. But there’s no mistaking the confident skill with which writer/director/editor Mark Jackson takes us deep into the troubled world of his female protagonist, nor the bravura performance from Joslyn Jensen — like Jackson, a notably promising feature film debut — at its core.
Part psychological thriller and part minimalist art movie, Without isn’t an easy sell (that forgettable title doesn’t exactly help) but overall is sufficiently distinctive to perhaps gain limited domestic theatrical exposure. Overseas festivals receptive to genuinely independent American cinema should certainly check it out.
The set-up is familiar from the horror/suspense genres: A young woman arrives in a remote location to look after a house for its holidaying owners, and is unnerved by a series of eerie experiences. Here Joslyn (Jensen shares her character’s name) is simultaneously housesitter and caretaker, tending to the needs of the family’s wheelchair-bound, near-catatonic grandfather Frank (Ron Carrier) while they’re away.
A fitness-conscious, quietly spoken 19-year-old, Joslyn struggles to cope with the very limited Internet access on this scenic, leafy island in Washington state. Among the things she is without is that indispensable aspect of modern life, Facebook. She must also deal with the advances of the underpopulated island’s over-friendly cab-driver/handyman Darren (genial, imposingly bearish Darren Lenz). As the days slowly pass, Joslyn’s mental equilibrium becomes a little unbalanced. We gradually piece together a traumatic back-story that has brought her to this particular place in this particular frame of mind.
While Jackson’s script provides certain key pieces of information, it’s never easy to know just how much to trust what we’re seeing and hearing. There are gaps in our understanding, which mirror Joslyn’s own unreliable relationship with reality. There’s evidently something badly amiss in this situation, but we’re never quite able to put our finger on it. One blink-and-you’ll-miss-it special effect even fleetingly hints at a supernatural element at play. This involves the white noise of a television set, one of several untrustworthy manifestations of electronic technology. (Joslyn’s near-symbiotic attachment to her Smartphone is a particular source of mystery and even anguish.)
The film’s achievement is, as with Roman Polanski’s 1965 Repulsion, one obvious influence, to leave us wondering to what extent Joslyn might be in actual physical danger, and to what extent she’s the principle source of that danger — both to herself and to others. She’s certainly far from the model caretaker. Her increasingly insensitive and cavalier treatment of helpless Frank crosses various lines of inappropriateness in a film which is frank in its presentation of nudity and feminine sexuality.
Biting fearlessly into a role that offers a terrific showcase for a younger performer, Jensen manages to retain our interest and sympathy even when her character’s eccentricities shade towards madness. She’s especially strong during the monologues – some delivered solo, some in Frank’s vegetative presence. These punctuate the sparsely-written screenplay and are notable for their quicksilver unpredictability. The generally downbeat tone is leavened by moments of uneasy humor, as when Joslyn’s employers pedantically delineate their exceedingly precise instructions about what she can and can’t do in their absence.
Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia’s high-definition digital cameras get up close and very personal to Jensen on many occasions. Their crisply lustrous imagery is a consistently hypnotic element as Without — nothing if not a mood-piece — establishes and develops its various sinister, chilly atmospheres. Eric Strausser’s sound design is a marvel of near-subliminal effects (a wolf-howl here, a twig-crack there) and growling susurrations. Jackson’s editing, meanwhile, chops up his claustrophobic little narrative into brisk fragments that keep us constantly on-edge, intrigued and tantalized by a bigger picture that’s always just slightly out of reach.
Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production company: Right On Red Films
Cast: Joslyn Jensen, Ron Carrier, Darren Lenz, Bob Sentinella, Piper Weiss, Jodi Long
Director/screenwriter/editor: Mark Jackson
Producers: Mark Jackson, Jessica Dimmock, Michael Requa, Jaime Keeling
Executive producer: Jeff Marchelletta
Directors of photography: Jessica Dimmock, Diego Garcia
Art director: Alisarine Ducolomb
Music: Dave Eggar, Nancy Magarill
Sales: Right On Red
No rating, 87 minutes