Mental illness as pseudo-horror film: that’s close to what “Jeff vs. the Mailbox” is, with a touch of jet-black humor as well. Agoraphobia is a very specific anxiety disorder characterized by fear of unsafe environments with no escape. In very severe cases, the afflicted cannot leave their homes. Jeff’s case is severe, and he can’t seem to leave his home.
Agoraphobia often goes hand in hand with, and can be triggered by, other mental illnesses, often post-traumatic stress disorder. It is never specified exactly what poor Jeff suffers from, but from his symptoms it appears he may be wrestling with a combination of agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Jeff has been lucky enough to have Christopher, a kindly postal officer, bring mail straight to his door rather than leaving it in the mailbox. His fortune turns when Christopher is replaced by a new employee who doesn’t feel like going outside the scope of his job to do this. A manager tells Jeff this is an exception that isn’t typically made unless the receiver is handicapped. It’s a shame they don’t realize Jeff is clearly “handicapped,” just not in a physical way.
Jeff collects and labels his mail in meticulously dated and organized manila envelopes, even though it doesn’t appear that he reads it. This, along with his sister’s offer to come over on the weekend and “rearrange his desk drawers,” point to obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Jeff is calling his sister, by the way, to beg her to collect his mail–and then to ask if his seven-year-old niece can. She refuses to enable him, saying he has to “put on his big boy pants” and do it himself.
Director Dru Wortham succeeds in making every step of this task as daunting and horrifying as it likely feels to Jeff. A fear of leaving the house will no doubt resonate with many people who have experienced mental illness. Jeff looks down at his slippers, puts them on, takes them off, puts them on. He opens his door, closes it, then tries to run back and open it again. Relentless noise and a score worthy of “The Exorcist” by Dreamoir assault his senses. He begins hearing voices and seeing apparitions. It is clear that it is here where Jeff begins experiencing PTSD, hearing voices about traumatic incidents from his past. The whole sequence is as terrifying to the viewer as it must be to Jeff.
“Jeff vs. the Mailbox” is a stunning and accomplished low-budget indie film. It manages to be scary, funny, and empathetic all at the same time. We were happy to have screened it during the second shorts block on Sunday 10/13/19, from 5:50 to 7:00 p.m.