One of the most intriguing sub-genres of sci-fi/horror cinema is that which is accomplished with few, if any, special effects. The best of these, such as COHERENCE or THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE, to name but two, are so thoughtfully conceived and intelligently crafted that the addition of gizmos, gadgets, or those ci-mentioned special effects would serve only to diminish their considerable impact. Jason Satterlund’s THE ABANDON is another such film, playing ingenious mind games with both its characters and its audience. But make no mistake, these are more than mere cerebral gymnastics, though that enters into it. These are small gems of suspense and genuine terror. Among the many achievements in this film, perhaps the most impressive is that Satterlund has set his story almost entirely within a grey cube, which, rather than limits him, sets the perfect stage for a dynamic thought experiment about the fabric of the universe, and the place of human beings within it.
The cube is where Miles Willis (Jonathan Rosenthal) wakes up after being wounded during a skirmish in Iraq. There are no doors or windows, only the word “abandon” written upside-down high up on one of the walls. But wait. Soon the word “hope” joins it. And other odd scribblings in more than one language. It gets stranger. The temperature shifts from extreme heat to extreme cold. The diffused light that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere brightens and darkens for no apparent reason. Mostly, though, it’s the way the room will suddenly spin, slamming Miles around as the ceiling becomes the floor, while leaving parts of his gear on the wall or the new ceiling, as though gravity is less an absolute than a highly localized phenomenon.
When he regains his equilibrium, even if it is only metaphorically, he uses his satellite phone to make contact with Damsey Robins (Tamara Perry). His relief at hearing another human voice is tempered by the questions raised when she relates how she also came to be trapped in a cube like his. And the answers to those questions raise even more disquieting ones as they realize that the walls are inexorably closing in on them and that the solution to that problem doesn’t necessarily tell them how to save themselves with it.
Satterlund’s use of perspective and sharp editing keeps the energy of the film at a high level, while his use of tight close-ups on Rosenthal and carefully chosen details of his situation create the necessary claustrophobia and tension. Amplifying it all is a soundscape that uses indistinct mechanical sounds that quietly rumble, scrape, and occasionally bellow without mercy.
The film succeeds, though, because of its two leads, one on camera for virtually the entire film, the other heard only as a disembodied voice. Rosenthal gives a performance of raw emotional immediacy as Miles cycles through pain, shock, exhaustion, fear, determination, and wonder. As for Perry, using only her voice, she matches Rosenthal beat for beat as their characters go through stages of mistrust, discovery, and finally an intimacy and a rapport that only danger can precipitate. Miles as the skeptic, and Damsey as the convincing voice of logic in an unreasonable reality.
THE ABANDON will make your synapses sizzle with its clever use of mathematics, so clever that the plot, dreamed up by Dwain Worrell, would not work without it. Nor would it work without the just as clever, and much more moving, use of the mind’s ability to make time and space an illusion that can both damn and heal, given the right solution, and the inspiration to apply it.