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SF IndieFest Review: ‘Without’ Is a Tragic and Beautiful Slowburn of Sorrow and Suspense

By  · Published on February 20th, 2012

The 14th Annual SF IndieFest runs February 9th-23rd at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Check out the official site for further film details.

19-year-old Joslyn heads deep into the Pacific Northwest to begin a temporary gig as a caretaker. Her ward for the next week or so is a large, remote house and a catatonic, wheelchair-bound grandfather named Frank. The house has no cell phone coverage and no internet, and while the TV gets hundreds of channels she’s instructed to leave it on the fishing station at all times.

With the distractions of the real world absent, Joslyn tries to keep herself occupied in other ways when she’s not feeding and cleaning Frank. She exercises, listens to music, and masturbates. She makes daily trips into town for coffee, dodges the amateurish attempts at seduction from one of the locals, and stares at her naked body in the mirror. And she looks longingly at pictures and a video on her cell phone of a smiling Asian girl.

But as the days pass a gentle paranoia settles in around her, and writer/director Mark Jackson allows it to build to menacing proportions. Wolves howl in the back woods, a local carpenter makes increasingly unwanted advances, and odd things begin happening around the house. Joslyn’s retreat from the outside world crumbles as the isolation that was meant to protect her from an unclear past instead allows an onslaught of memory and sorrow. As fear and sadness collide she’s left wondering if the threats she’s feeling are real or imagined.

Without begins with the calm solitude of a ferry ride, but once Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen) arrives at the house she’ll be watching over things immediately begin to unsettle. The “bible” she’s given by the homeowners instructs her how loud the TV can go, that knives should never go in the dish washer, that she’s welcome to any of the food except for the mac n’ cheese, and other even stranger restrictions. Her dreams become nightmares, the local’s advances become more aggressive, her phone seems to change resting places overnight when she’s asleep, and doors seem to lock and unlock of their own accord.

Jackson’s film sets itself up with the well-worn genre trope of a girl alone in big, scary house, and he succeeds in creating a truly menacing and suspenseful atmosphere. It could easily go the way of Repulsion or House of the Devil but eventually finds its way to someplace even more haunting. It’s far from a horror film, however.

There’s loss and sadness here, confusion and madness too, but at its core is a very personal story.

It’s rare to watch a film where you don’t have some idea of what’s to come. The details will always surprise of course, but the general path a film is taking is typically clear as you watch. Jackson’s tale refuses to offer viewers that reassurance. There are many directions his film can go, and as the suspense builds and the story plays out some of the pieces slowly fall into place. Clues are left scattered throughout like fragmented memories, but Jackson is more interested in creating and evoking feelings than he is in offering up specific answers.

Make no mistake, this is a slow and deliberately paced film that echoes Martha Marcy May Marlene or Meek’s Cutoff in more ways than one, albeit on a smaller scale. And there’s more to the story than I’ve mentioned here, including a woman in town who Joslyn seems to know and some misguided behavior towards Frank, but their details and importance are best discovered within the film’s construct.

The handful of supporting actors are mostly fine, but this is truly a one woman show and Jensen proves to be more than up to the task. She’s in every scene, and for much of it is left to communicate with viewers without dialogue. It’s a deceptively stunning performance as she blends into her character’s routine so completely that when her emotions begin to seep and explode outward we can’t help but feel with and for her. Jensen’s already won several festival awards for this her feature debut, and she deserves to win more for what is a truly fearless performance.

Jackson surrounds his lead with visual and audio details that are equally off balance and mesmerizing. Conversations reveal others as little more than blurry figures on the fringes, Frank’s coughing and raspy breathing permeates the walls of the house, and the serene exterior seems to hide something terrible just out of frame. The norm of the days transforms into uncertain evenings, and we’re trapped there with Joslyn.

This is also Jackson’s feature debut, and like Jensen he succeeds brilliantly with a film that engages through visuals and character, through revelation and mystery. The film’s slow pace will no doubt turn off some viewers, but that would be a shame as the story here is as subtle as it is powerful. It’s a suspenseful drama infused with a sadness worth discussing long after the credits roll.

Without screens Monday, February 20th at 7:15PM.

The 14th Annual SF IndieFest runs February 9th-23rd at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Check out the official site for further film details.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.