Harry Treadaway, Greg Wise, Alex Jennings
(IFC Festival Direct VOD; US theatrical: 15 Jul 2009 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 19 Jun 2009 (General release); 2008)
Guilt is its own phantom. It plagues us like a poltergeist, haunting our hours with unwanted memories of a painful, unrepentant past. It eats at our soul, making us question the very meaning of life, and when it finally passes, it rests in the cracks of our own emotional estate, hoping to reappear when we’re weakest, or most vulnerable. For young Matthew Ryan, the disappearance of his little brother Tom has brought on numerous conflicting consequences. It has caused a rift with his father, the man blaming his son for partying instead of carefully watching the boy. It has forced a stint in a mental institution, Matthew’s mind awash in a sea of unexplained questions and suffering. And oddly enough, it appears to have attracted real ghosts - visions begging our beleaguered adolescent to find out what really happened on that fateful night.
Thus begins Johnny Kevorkian’s feature film debut The Disappeared. Using the cold, sterile backdrop of some nameless council flats to tell a solid story of loss, conspiracy, and perhaps murder, the first 50 minutes of this movie deserve some kind of award for atmosphere. From the bleak, washed out color scheme to the slow, methodic unveiling of clues, our filmmaker follows a pattern that gives the supposed supernatural elements a good place to settle in and prosper. Since Matthew is on medication, dedicated to getting better and rediscovering a life amongst his family and friends, his “visions” could be nothing more than pharmaceutical hallucinations. Indeed, Kevorkian closely guards his storytelling secrets, turning events into a whodunit so gradually we barely realize there’s an investigation going on.
Similarly, the flashback to the night of the disappearance gives us all the foundational information we need. For his part, Matthew appears aimless and selfish, focusing on getting high and carousing with his friends. One of his mates is played with tough talking relish by Harry Potter‘s Tom Felton. Up until the moment when the situation hits too close to home, his Simon is a seductive presence in Matthew’s wallowing misery. The imposing apartment block also acts like a character, offering up its own unseen horrors (a gang of miscreant youth who terrorize the grounds) and hopes. Said prospect comes in the guise of abused girl Amy. Even with the nightly rows next door, she’s always there to offer advice and insight - even if it seems a bit too prescient to be possible.
Indeed, the concept of giving too much away is detrimental to Kevorkian’s narrative intent. The minute Matthew starts seeing visions of his brother, we are convinced the plot is going to address their meaning. Sure enough, our lead starts doing a bit of detective work, discovering symbols and stray facts that appear to bring the crime close to home. But the minute we are introduced to a quite church worker and start seeing crosses, The Disappeared descends into near-cliché. We don’t really mind the fall since how we got there has been effective and well worth the time. But the last 30 minutes play out like an extended riff on one of those Lucio Fulci zombie films. As Matthew runs around an underground crypt, discovering the untold terrors within, we keep waiting for some reanimated bodies to turn up…or at the very least, one incredibly angry killer.
Luckily, the subtext saves The Disappeared, keeping it from coming across as a first time fright film. Because of where he lives, because of our awareness of some obvious bruises and scars (remnants from a troubled past, given Dad’s demeanor), because of his almost daily struggle to stay in control of his faculties, Matthew makes for an intriguing core. We are willing to follow him if only because he rewards are attention with insights and conclusions. As played by Harry Treadaway, some may find our “hero” a little much too take. He is completely self-absorbed and given over to fits of flawed selfishness. But once sees how deep his brother’s disappearance truly goes, once we realize there is a bigger picture involved outside the frail family unit, we grant the boy our indulgence and take Kervorkian’s ride. For the most part, it’s a nail biting trip.
Yet there are occasions where the director’s novice hand comes to the fore. The entire subplot involving a “psychic medium” that may or may not exist literally goes nowhere, highlighted simply because it allows Matthew a chance to discover some aspect of the truth. Similarly, no matter how good Draco Malfoy is here, Simon seems added on, brought in to be both gregarious and grief stricken, depending on the situational tide. And as red herrings go, Matthew’s dad should have a massive sign around his next saying “child beating pedophilic murderer”, they way he roams around the shadows pawing through his locked drawers filled with “secrets”. Thankfully, Kervokian isn’t THAT obvious. Unfortunately, he does take a concluding path that many will feel is equally self-evident.
Still, it’s the specter of overriding grief that gives The Disappeared its edge. It’s almost impossible not to sympathize with what has happened here or to avoid empathizing with the pain Matthew is feeling. Sure, some of what Kervokian does reeks of the untested and the unskilled, and we could have a bit more of an expositional round-up once all the usual suspects are introduced, accused, and dealt with. But for the most part, this is a sensational slow burn of a thriller, a dread-inducing path of paranormal possibilities that only loses its way toward the end. In a genre that sees so many ghost stories slip off into incomprehensible drivel, it’s nice to note a quality example of same. While it may miss an opportunity here or there, The Disappeared is an eerie, entertaining effort.