CIFF 2011: Without (2011)

Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Mark Jackson

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As I watched the opening moments of Without—an extreme close-up of lead actress Joslyn Jensen staring expressionless for rather a long time—I had that familiar sinking feeling. Oh no, I thought, not another contemplative indie movie full of arthouse pretensions and repressions. Preparing for the worst, I was absolutely shocked to find myself utterly engrossed in a film that slyly moves from commonplace to harrowing to heartbreaking through a tour de force near-solo performance by Jensen, some well-framed handheld camerawork by Diego García and Jessica Dimmock, who also coproduced the film, and tension-building editing by director Jackson.

Jensen plays 19-year-old Joslyn, who has been hired to look after a severely brain-damaged man while his family takes a vacation. Joslyn gets a ride to their cabin in the woods on Whidbey Island in Washington State by kitchen remodeler Darren (Darren Lenz), whose hints that he would like to get to know Joslyn better are firmly deflected. Joslyn has him drop her at a crossroads, starts down the road to the right, waits until he drives away, and then reverses course and goes to the left. She knocks on the door of the cabin and is ushered in by the owners (Bob Sentinella and Piper Weiss) to meet Frank (Ron Carrier), her charge for the next week or so.

The cabin is isolated, with unreliable cellphone service and no internet connection. Despite having access to 600 TV channels, Joslyn is instructed to leave the TV on the fishing channel, the only one Frank likes to watch, and not to increase the sound above 34. She is also told she can drink some Kahlua, but none of the whiskey (“It’s Bob’s. Believe me, he’ll notice.”), and that she must not put the knives in the dishwasher. She is given a booklet of instructions the couple, in all seriousness, calls “the bible.” The family says their good-byes and heads out. Joslyn says hello to Frank properly and settles in for what will be a long and lonely ride.

At first, Joslyn is seen being a caregiver, picking up Frank’s meds from the drugstore, feeding him stewed pears and carefully scraping whatever he burbles out between his lips with a spoon, changing his diaper while trying to avert her eyes to respect his modesty—or maybe just because she’s grossed out by the chore. Joslyn doesn’t appear to be a professional caregiver, nor a particularly nurturing, self-sacrificing person. Refreshingly, she’s a modern young woman who gets bored and restless. When she is not caring for Frank, Joslyn works out in the family’s home gym, listens to music on her iPod, looks at pictures and videos of her girlfriend on her iPhone, even sits in front of the oven and watches cookies bake.

Hints that there may be more to Joslyn’s temporary job than meets the eye come when she asks a barista about whether a certain woman is still in town. So, she knows this place! Yes, says the girl who serves her a chai latte every day at the drive-thru, and wasn’t it terrible about her daughter. Joslyn, fed up with the lack of an internet connection, rummages around in a spare room for a computer and camera, sets them up, and tries to get dial-up internet service. Despite the repeated connection failures signaled on the computer monitor, she seems to be communicating with someone through the camera. Her phone seems to move from room to room, doors that should be open are locked, and Joslyn believes Frank is messing with her. Her behavior around the old man becomes alarmingly sexual and abusive. Then, one night, as we rather expected, Darren lets himself into the house.

It’s hard to explain how it can be so fascinating to watch Joslyn behave like we all suspect those we hire to look after our homes might. But then, Joslyn’s behavior has a strange edge to it, a desperation, particularly when she seems to be communicating with her girlfriend. In one scene, Joslyn sits perfectly still at a window as she watches a deer outside. The deer is vigilant, then slowly approaches the window. That’s kind of how it is to watch this film—fight-or-flight alertness, curiosity, a pull toward something wounded and in need. As played by Jensen, Joslyn’s ordinary life is more extraordinary in its literal and emotional nakedness than most you’ll see in any film. I’ve read comparisons with Catherine Deneuve’s performance in Repulsion (1965), but the truly apt comparison is with Bruno Lawrence’s last man on earth in The Quiet Earth (1985). Indeed so riveting is she in her self-contained longing that camera focus problems and jostling barely register. Instead, we hungrily look for those amazing expressions that say so much in a film relatively free of dialog.

We all have secrets—even Frank, as Joslyn discovers to her disgust—and honestly, if I had never found out what Joslyn’s was, I wouldn’t have minded. It is revealed economically and with feeling, but the effect was worth a million causes. Here’s an indie film that can compete with the majors. Don’t miss it!

Without will screen Saturday, October 8, 3:45 p.m., Sunday, October 9, 1:15 p.m., and Wednesday, October 12, 3:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)

  • Colin spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 12:26 pm

    Consider THIS one added to the list, too. Looks right up my alley.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 1:34 pm

    It’s a sleeper that packs a punch.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 10:01 pm

    Your terrific review here is about as favorable as any you’ve issues at FoF in a very long time! Apparently Ms. Jensen’s work alone makes this a compelling drama, but as you’ve related there is so much more!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/09/2011 to 10:15 pm

    Sam – It’s an interesting film, quite creepy and banal at the same time. I’m not quite sure how the filmmakers pulled it off, but Jensen is a major artist in the making.

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