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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

SIFF Review: Without

Note: I first saw Without at the Sarasota Film Festival, where it was one of the films in competition for the jury on which I served.

It isn’t every day that a festival film by a first-time director, starring an unknown, first-time actress, catches my attention in the way Without has. The feature debut of both writer/director Mark Jackson and his leading lady, Joslyn Jensen, Without is a tense, taut psychological thriller, directed with a steady hand, and practically perfect in its pacing and tone.

In case you’re wondering, that’s actually rather difficult to achieve. I don’t think I’ve seen it done this successfully in more than a handful of films — 13 (Tzameti) and Grace, Primer and Cube all come to mind by way of comparing how these very different films all made smart, economical use of good storytelling, tension and dramatic effect to be excellent in spite of very small budgets.

Without follows a young woman, Joslyn, on a ferry as she heads to a job as a caregiver for a wheelchair band elderly man on a remote corner of Whidbey Island, Washington. What’s a nice young girl like her doing in a place like this? And is the seemingly innocuous old man really as incapacitated as he seems? And most importantly … what happens if you put the knives in the dishwasher?

Because the old man’s son and daughter-in-law are almost Stepford-like in the intensity with which they lay out the rules Joslyn is to follow, which have been written down in what the wife refers to with a nervous chuckle as “the Bible” for how to run the house. There’s a very carefully drawn, slightly sinister undertone to what Joslyn sees of the family’s happy-happy exterior before they pile into the family van and head off for their vacation that helps a great deal in building the underlying tension in the film — particularly if you’ve seen enough fucked-up-family films (Dogtooth, anyone?) to know that there’s any number of ways in which unhappy families can be interesting to explore in an independent film. It’s just enough to keep you off-kilter, uncertain what to expect next.

The inciting incident that sets the story in motion actually happens before the film starts, and everything else in the film happens the way it does because of the main character’s reaction to that event. The storyline is deceptively simplistic, but Jackson finds ways to delve deeper into grief and guilt to keep the story moving along. The idea a young girl, alone but for an infirm (maybe) old man, in the middle of nowhere, with no cell phone coverage, is psychologically exploited to great effect here. It helps that Joslyn’s a child of the technology age, probably not used to being out of cell phone range of her friends and family for as long as she can remember. Cutting her off by setting the film in a remote location is a smart set-up, as is the idea to have one tiny spot in the house — in the old man’s room — where her cellphone can get any signal at all.

Speaking of cell phones, if there was an award given at the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Use of Technology in a film (and maybe there should be), Without would be a contender for the crown. Joslyn’s iPhone is used almost as a character in the film, a stand-in of sorts for a person, and it’s one of the least-contrived reasons for working an iPhone into a plot that I’ve seen. Like everything else in the field — including the ferry ride over — it’s smartly and economically used to great effect, and there are subtleties in this and many other scenes that you ponder later as you put the pieces together.

Jensen’s performance is great; she conveys fragility, strength, fear and vulnerability without one false note or sense of grandstanding. I’ve said this before, but it bears saying again that if Without had played Sundance (Jackson told me they did submit to Sundance but it was a rough cut), I have no doubt that Jensen would have been talked about in the same breath as the other “It Girls” there this year. Another couple solid indie roles under her belt and she could be a Carey Mulligan. She reminded me here a lot of Brittany Murphy circa 8 Mile.

Jackson shows a lot of promise as a director, based on this debut. He knows how to take a vision and meticulously control the execution, but beyond that he seems to have an innate grasp of tone and flow that some writers just have naturally. It’s going to be very interesting to see his next couple films (assuming he makes more, and I hope he does). But for now, this is one feature debut you want to seek out for yourself.

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“With any character, the way I think about it is, you have the role on the page, you have the vision of the director and you have your life experience… I thought it was one of the foundations of the role for John Wick. I love his grief. For the character and in life, it’s about the love of the person you’re grieving for, and any time you can keep company with that fire, it is warm. I absolutely relate to that, and I don’t think you ever work through it. Grief and loss, those are things that don’t ever go away. They stay with you.”
~ Keanu Reeves

“I was checking through stuff the other day for technical reasons. I came across The Duellists on Netflix and I was absolutely stunned to see that it was exquisitely graded. So, while I rarely look up my old stuff, I stopped to give it ten minutes. Bugger me, I was there for two hours. I was really fucking pleased with what it was and how the engine still worked within the equation and that engine was the insanity and stupidity of war. War between two men, in that case, who fight on thought they both eventually can’t remember the reason why. It was great, yeah. The great thing about these platforms now is that, one way or another, they’ll seek out and then put out the best possible form and the long form. Frequently, films get cut down because of that curse in which the studio felt or feels that they have to preview. And there’s nothing worse than a preview to diminish the original intent.Oh, yeah, how about every fucking time? And I’ve stewed about films later even more because when you tell the same joke 20 times the joke’s no longer funny. When you tell a bad joke once or twice? It’s fine. But come on, now. Here’s the key on the way I feel when I approach the movie: I try to keep myself as withdrawn from the project as possible once I’ve filmed it. And – this is all key on this – then getting a really excellent editor so I never have to sit in on editing. What happens if you sit in is you become stale and every passage or joke, metaphorically speaking, gets more and more tired. You start cutting it all back because of fatigue. So what you have to do is keep your distance and therefore, in a funny kind of way, you, as the director, should be the preview and that’s it.”
~ Sir Ridley Scott