On screen and on paper, the private investigator remains, for me, perhaps the most attractive of detectives to be found in fiction. You can keep your twinkly-eyed spinsters and your upper-class amateurs, for me PIs are often as interesting as the cases they investigate. And the form is so flexible that it can be taken in many truly unexpected directions. This little gem of a movie is a brilliant case in point, triumphantly updating the neo-Noir formula to the 21st century.
The following review is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.
“I could lie there forever. But the phone rang”
Michael Shannon stars as John Rosow, a shambling, drunken PI based in Chicago. The film opens in a grungy style designed to dissuade casual viewers, the image dirty and grimy, the titles cheesy and cheap in the extreme, looking like the worst of bargain-basement straight-to-video fodder. But don’t turn off as this is merely meant to introduce our hero (and he is a hero) at rock bottom. Alone in the crappiest of one-room apartments, he is awoken by an unexpected phone call and a follow-up visit from Miss Charley (Amy Ryan, who also co-produces) and hired to follow an anonymous man on a train. Rosow accepts and manages to make himself reasonably presentable, though horribly hung over, and get on the train. The man he is following has a young Mexican boy with him, which bothers Rosow but he is told that this is a straight tail job and all he has to do is report on where they go. This leads to a hotel in Hollywood and a barroom encounter with the beautiful Lana Cobb (Margaret Colin), who for some reason takes a shine to the PI.
Although her sudden crush on the guy is seemingly a bit implausible as he is very far from his best and she is definitely rather glam, it turns out that there is an explanation. Also, the fact is that Rosow is in actually quite likeable. Most (like Miss Charley) resist his charm but he is not cynical, sarcastic, embittered or misanthropic – he is just as much of a lost soul as the man and boy he is following.
“You’ve got a sad disposition, Mr. Rosow”
The man it turns out is freeing the lad from sex slavery and taking him to a safe haven – or at least, that’s what he thinks he is doing. But then Rosow, arriving in Mexico in boot of a taxi (cue some amusing banter with ex-New York cab driver about the real-life Frank Serpico), gets conked on the head and things turn out not to be what he was told. At this point the perspective on the story really shifts and truly starts to come into focus. Most reviews give away this part of the plot but it seems to be that it is better not to know, if you can – it’s not a clever twist or plot reversal, but it ties the major characters together in an unexpected way and gives the film an unexpected poignancy.
“You wake up one day and you’re an adult. And all the people you were just dreaming about have gone and changed. So you shake the sleep-dust from your eyes and you say, was it really so long ago that you and I sat together having fun? No, not so long ago. But life goes by in the blink of an eye.”
Rosow is a man straight out of 1940s Film Noir and like Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye (1973) seems to have suddenly woken up in the contemporary world, cast adrift by the tide of modernity (he is amazed to discover that cell phones can take photos – and yes, this film is most definitely set int he present day). But it turns out there is a reason for his retreat into the past, there is a reason why he has turned to drink, and there is a completely understandable motive behind his melancholy. This is not a violent film – no guns are fired, nobody gets killed, there isn’t even much in the way of foul language – but is certainly dramatic, carried by a strong tide of emotion, leading to a conclusion that is both positive, life-affirming and still melancholy. It is a low-key and modest film, shot in a restrained style and made on a very small budget, but tells a good story and is played by a fine cast. I was completely won over and I think you will too. I had heard how good this film was though the good word being spread by John F Norris (see his review at Pretty Sinister Books) and, as usual, he was absolutely right. The official movie website is here: www.missingpersonmovie.com/
DVD Availability: Available as a bare bones release on DVD it would be nice if this were given a bit more TLC as it really deserves it.
The Missing Person (2009)
Director: Noah Buschel
Producer: Allen Bain, Lois J. Drabkin, Alex Estes, Jesse Scolaro, Amy Ryan
Screenplay: Noah Buschel
Cinematography: Ryan Samul
Art Direction: Aleta Shaffer
Music: (after Ravel)
Cast: Michael Shannon, Frank Wood, Amy Ryan, Margaret Colin, John Ventimiglia, Linda Emond