People are talking about Matthew (Henry Treadaway). He’s been away from home for months, institutionalized following a breakdown of some sort. As he sits, very still, in an office chair against the wall, his father Jake (Greg Wise) worries that he’s not ready. The doctor tries to reassure him: “I understand your concern,” she says off screen, “He has been through a lot.” The camera pushes in and around Matt, as if looking for signs of trouble. “It’s time, the doctor continues, “For him to get home and get on with his life.”
That life, as Matt sees it, isn’t precisely one he’d like to get on with. For one thing, he’s feeling horrifically guilty about his younger brother Tom (Lewis Lemperuer-Palmer), who went missing one night when Matt was supposed to be watching him (“Stay in your dad’s bedroom,” Matt instructs Tom in an anxious-making flashback, “You’ve got your chocolate and your crisps, right?”) Distracted by his own birthday party—which activities included drinking and smoking—Matt didn’t go to collect Tom until it was too late: the eight-year-old was gone. Despite weeks of police investigation and his father’s pleading on TV, he was never found. Though he’s never said as much, Matt knows Jake blames him, but at the same time, he’s caught in a cloud of suspicion as well, given that he was rumored to be beating his boys, after driving their mother away.
This complicated family dynamic is the point of departure for The Disappeared, available on IFC Festival Direct video-on-demand starting 15 July. Part horror movie, part psychological study, it’s focused through Matt’s apparently unreliable perceptions through the first hour or so, after which it collapses into a fairly trite explanation for why neighborhood kids are going missing. Before that collapse, however, Johnny Kevorkian’s film is effectively bleak and evocative.
As soon as he arrives home, lugging his bag behind his father, Matt looks both familiar with and forlorn in his environment, a South London council block. Low and long angles repeatedly show Matt against a background that doesn’t so much loom as it hangs, industrial and grey-skied. As he makes his way through ever-dark side streets, a squad of bullies on bicycles speed by, bumping and menacing, insinuating he’s a “girl.” Inside the flat, where Jake and Matt hunch over a kitchen or close their bedroom doors in one another’s faces, the walls are pale, grim green.
Matt’s efforts to make sense of what happened the night Tom disappeared are shaped by this miserable background. He picks through boxes of memorabilia his father hasn’t tossed, torn newspaper clippings and a decrepit videotape of the TV news coverage. Popping this into the player, Matt can’t be surprised to see his father’s news conference, featuring a standard and ineffably sad plea to the presumed kidnappers to return the child because “we need him.” When he also hears Tom’s voice on the tape, calling to him for help, Matt believes it and tells Jake (who responds much as you’d expect, phoning the doctor with another plea for help: “I just don’t think I can handle it if he tips over again”).
Reminded that he can’t trust adults—including pushy reporter Jason Saks (Finlay Robertson) and social services caseworker Ballan (Alex Jennings), who tends to “stop by” unannounced—Matt turns to his peers. When he tells Simon (Tom Felton, a.k.a. Draco Malfoy) about the voice on the tape, their conversation careen between possibilities: “That’s some spooky shit, man,” Simon gulps, before he comes out the other end, remembering that he’s heard about a “phenomenon where you get dead people’s voices on tapes” It’s a mystery just where Simon heard this tidbit, but he suggests that Matt make his own tape. He does exactly that, using a child’s recorder out at the playground where Tom reportedly wandered the night he vanished. “You shouldn’t have gone,” he mutters, “That wasn’t fair.” When he plays it back, Matt hears Tom’s voice again. It is indeed “spooky shit.”
Matt’s other confidant is a new neighbor, Amy (Ros Leeming). He sees her initially as a fellow survivor, after hearing her scream at night when her father beats her. “I wasn’t listening in,” he assures her, but he does seem prone to hear things he doesn’t want to hear. When she finds him unconscious following an encounter with the bullies, Amy and Matt bond over concealing his injuries (“One thing I know about,” she offers, “is covering up cuts and bruises”) and discovering the truth of Tom’s apparent haunting.
Unlike the adults looking to re-order their chaotic world, Amy is more able to contend with blurry edges: “If your brother is trying to tell you something,” she observes, “It doesn’t matter if it’s real or not: you just listen.” Just listening is hard for Matt, of course, whether it’s grown-ups telling him he’s wrong or mad, or spooky Tom making him feel guilty and bungling. But Amy, sometimes as ethereal-seeming as his missing brother, also bears a certain weight: tragic and empathetic, she’s the ideal girl.