WITHOUT by Mark Jackson, USA 2011
Loss. Isolation. Ambiguity. Can you trust your own senses?
Psychological thriller meets art house cinema in an intriguing film, which leaves you both shaken up and asking more questions. And needing a good sturdy hug.
The Galway Film Fleadh’s Cinemobile is a safe, cosy little venue to watch a film in. Nice, squishy chairs, you can stretch out on comfortably whilst you watch a film, a nice environment where you feel all safe nestled under the shadow of the Town Hall Theatre. Or so I thought until I watched the unnerving 'Without' in the cinemobile on Wednesday night and rather than strolling contently home from the venue, I dashed into the nearest taxi and ran up into my apartment, locking every door behind me.
Josyln, a young woman, has been employed by a family to look after the elderly Frank, trapped in a vegetative state. They go on vacation, leaving Josyln and her charge to keep each other company in this ultra-modern house, located on a remote wooden island. Josyln is cut-off from the outside world – there’s no internet, no reliable phone connection. The little contact Josyln has with other residents of this island is restricted to encounters with the overly-friendly and intense Darren, who seems to function as both island taxi driver and island carpenter, and the girl who serves her coffee in a nearby drive through. As time passes, her relationships with all three people crumbles and decays, and her daily routine and mental well being unravels, as loneliness and grief takes its toll.
Josyln begins with a rigid routine of exercise and caring for Frank - scenes of her working out vigorously are spliced with uneasy scenes of her feeding Frank or cleaning him. As time passes, Josyln's routine falls to the wayside as her grip on reality begins to slip away from her. Cut off from the outside world, without an internet connection or reliable phone signal, she retreats into the comfort of videos on her iPhone and begins finding ways to keep herself occupied - starting innocently enough by trying to put together a PC and find an internet connection, and exploring the house for sources of entertainment – she comes across a ukulele, resulting in perhaps one of the most absorbing moments of the film. She sets up the iPhone to record her playing the ukulele and singing a love song – beautifully sung and played, it’s very stirring to hear her sing after very little dialogue up until this point. This moment of happiness soon falters, as her grief overcomes her and she abandons the song. Who was she recording this song for? Recording it on her iPhone seems like an attempt to communicate with the outside world and this theme carries on as she starts performing monologues, which start off innocently enough but soon dissolve into uneasy moments. They begin, for example with her speaking to the computer as though there’s someone on the other end, and soon she performs these monologues in front of Frank as she begins to lose grip of what is proper and doesn’t care any more to monitor how she behaves around him.
Josyln Jensen gives an amazing performance as the 'on the edge' Joslyn - I hate to describe a performance as 'brave' but she really is brave in how she expresses Joslyn's grief and struggle with loneliness and her sexuality. The character crosses many boundaries in the film, and Joslyn does not hold back at any point. It becomes uncomfortable to watch at times - the voyeuristic style of filming gives the feeling of observing very private moments and quite often moments you'd rather not know about. There are scenes between her and Frank which are incredibly uncomfortable and I was aware of the other audience members squirming in discomfort at times. Josyln manages to retain the audience’s sympathy even during these more uncomfortable moments, and is always nothing less than engaging. Her performance was mesmerizing – she swings from contemplative to overtly sexual to blackly comic, showing so many different facets to the character.
The film throws up many questions and answers few of them - frustratingly perhaps, but the film allows the viewer to make up their own mind on what is happening rather than spoonfeeding them. I feared a silly ending would be tagged on that would clear up all the ambiguity but luckily Mark Jackson avoided such a disaster. We are given a back story bit by bit which helps explain Joslyn's mental state to some extent, but even this leaves us wondering what the full story is - nothing is ever clearly explained, the full story is just out of our reach but tantalizing dangled in front of us. Josyln's mental wellbeing makes her an unreliable protagonist - how can we trust in what is happening if we cannot trust what we see through her eyes? Is there a sinister threat on the island, is the threat residing in the form of the catatonic Frank, or is the threat all in her head? The soundtrack of occasional wolf howls and cracking twigs, along with the fragments narrative, keep the audience on edge and adds to the sinister atmosphere. You leave the film still not quite sure of what happened and questioning everything you saw, turning it over and over in your head. And I love that.
Seeing this film reminds of why I love the Galway Film Fleadh so much. If it wasn’t for the Fleadh, I’m not sure this film would have crossed my path – a couple of days later, I’m still struck by it and it has lingered in my mind (there’s only a couple of films which have lingered in such a manner, ‘Perfect Sense’ and ‘Requiem for a Dream’ spring to mind). A startling film, with a great and layered performance from first timer Josyln Jensen, and an unbelievable debut for fellow first timer director Mark Jackson, it’s definitely a must see – just don’t watch it by yourself. And have somebody on standby to give you a good hug afterwards.