The Missing Person
Nothing’s Easy, Baby
Starring: Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan
By Robert Patrick
Most noir films feel slicked with perverse, uncouth undercurrents. Bubbling under the surface of its monochrome skin, the genre pulsates dread and sleaziness. In director Noah Buschel’s neo-noir, “The Missing Person,” the standard template of hazy cool has been tweaked a bit to show a reality that, despite our feverish wishes, isn’t as smooth and scripted as we’d like it to be. The bulbs of smoke still exist in our private eye’s world, but it isn’t always hiding a volatile beauty on the other side of it. No, gumshoe for hire John Rosow (Michael Shannon) isn’t as confident and fork tongued as those prolific and shadowy investigators of cinema’s flickering past would’ve been. Here, our detective is put on a case to find a missing man, bring him back home to his wife, and collect a big black suitcase full of cash.
After finding his mark, Rosow grapples with a moral conundrum that makes up most of the film’s inner organs; who is this man that our booze-hound of an investigator is looking for? Is bringing the mystery man back to his grieving spouse the right thing to do? As lines between professional obligation and personal introspection bleed into one another, Rosow begins to question his past, present and lack of future.
Not a lot of seismic action erupts within the running time of “The Missing Person,” even at its trim 93-minute running time – but it doesn’t really matter. Buschel’s film is an exercise in pure mood; the characters are seedy, the music is lonesome, and the dialogue is the scotch on the proverbial rocks.
There are blips of technology that appear in the film, since this is set in modern times, but they are of moot importance to the hovering cloud of classic – some may say archaic – themes of older noir films. Rosow, for instance, uses a cell phone, to his distaste, and looks to have rather cradled a fedora hat instead of a hunk of plastic. Every use of current technological advances in the film are of sardonic value to Buschel’s playful direction, which is both flippant and dark.
“The Missing Person” is unexpectedly funny. Because the film is blanketed in subtleties, the humor, also following the same minimalism as the drama, is appropriately – and very dryly – goofy at points. You can tell Buschel’s opus is full of adolescent excitement in creating, what he calls, a sort of “dress up” with his actors. You understand that all of this wry, abysmal darkness is a sonnet to a forgotten time.
Michael Shannon, dressed in a mildly wrinkled suit and crooked tie, is perfect as a disenchanted investigator for hire. Shannon’s voice is a alcohol soaked hybrid of Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade” character and Humphrey Bogart’s take on Sam Spade. Everything about the actor is convincing; he slouches like an old accordion, curls his lip like a mountain pass, and smokes like a child’s volcanic science experiment. It’s a perfect role for an outstanding actor. There aren’t many faces as capable of expression as Shannon’s, and Buschel, in directing the emotive thespian, makes the best of his talents.
To say too much about “The Missing Person” is to clear the smoke of a great fun-house game. There is much to be discovered, much to experience in one of the most inexplicably entertaining films that I have seen in some time. Everything is so warm in this film that it’s hard not to enamor its coy sensibilities and effortless moxy for the days of past.
Buschel understands that, to be a great filmmaker, you have to have to tell a story with atmosphere. In “The Missing Person” there is enough wit lurking under the shadows of its taut dialogue that it rumbles in romanticism. One of the better pictures of the early year, Buschel’s piece of celluloid only gets better upon reflection.