The Missing Person, playing at Sundance even as its star Michael Shannon earns an Oscar nomination for his work in Revolutionary Road, isn't merely a clever, cool spin on the classic private eye story, but it also works as a private eye story. It showcases a lurching, hunched, quietly lived-in performance by Shannon but offers more than just that performance. It has the knowing, humane touches of Paul Auster's brilliant urban fiction but still manages to rope in familiar crime genre characters like the rich widow, the collaborating cabbie, the wanted man, the ethical crimelord, the unethical businessman, the femme fatale and -- most importantly -- the sad-sack, mercenary-but-moral private eye.
John Rosow (Shannon) lives and works and drinks -- and does a far better job of the last thing in that list than the first two -- in a shabby office in Chicago. The phone rings. Get to the train station by 7, he's told. Board the Zephyr Express from Chicago to L.A.; there's a man to follow. An old friend in New York recommended him, and he's got the job if he wants it: "Five hundred dollars a day, plus expenses ... not including gin." After Miss Charlie (Amy Ryan) gives him the dossier of background and some cash, Rosow shaves, puts on a brown suit, goes to the train and takes the job. Because that's what a private eye does, as near as he can tell. And aside from the ringing phone being a cell, we could be in the 30's or the '40s or the '50s with the train and the gin and the cash and the job. But, of course, we're not. Written by Noah Buschel, The Missing Person looks and feels like yet another ironic spin on the private eye film; the ghost of Altman's shaggy Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye hovers over the film, as do thousands of classics in the genre. But as Rosow follows the mark, Harold Fullmer (played by character actor Frank Wood, whose indistinct familiarity adds to the role before he even speaks), Buschel pulls the rug out from under us; as The Missing Person drew to a close, I was not impressed by its clever irony, but rather (and saying little more for fear of revealing the film's pleasures) by its real sincerity. Buschel knows how to make a joke and shoot a scene, but he also has something to say -- about who we are and how we deal with grief, about the challenges of getting out of bed some mornings -- and if there's a villain in The Missing Person, it's not necessarily a man with a gun in the doorway but instead a sense of the pain in the world.
As Rosow, Shannon is weirdly perfect -- lurching, stumbling and wheezing his way down the mean streets, with flashes of insight behind his watery drunk eyes, somehow both harmless and threatening in his stiff retro brown suit. (Shannon manages to be both endearing and scary; you root for him even though he's a grim and tragic slab of a man, like the prodigal Son of Frankenstein.)The film's loaded with retro private eye lingo and classic crime tale visual touches -- phrases like "on the lam" and "vamoose," visions of cocktails and the sound of cocktail jazz -- but as all the remembrance of things past adds up, it transforms from quirky-cool window dressing to quietly, affectingly help make the film's point about how time passes, and how we do too.
Which is not to say that there's not some cool conversation; when a new friend met in a bar (Margaret Colin) asks Rosow what he does for a living, he smiles: "I'm in the hide and seek business." "That's a game that kids play." He fires back, cool and knowing: "Well, if you add some money to it, it's for adults. ..." And Rosow's interactions with his employer's right-hand woman (who, in classic noir fashion, may or may not know what the left hand is doing) Miss Charley (Ryan) start as lob-and-serve antagonism and wisecracks before turning into a very different game, and then the kind of game that isn't a game at all. And many scenes, like Rosow getting braced by a Segway-straddling Santa Monica cop for the dual sins of jaywalking and "smoking on the promenade" are quietly pitched yet hilarious.
Shot on 16mm, The Missing Person has more than just an aesthetic of economy; Buschel, cinematographer Ryan Samul and editor Mollie Goldstein get nice shots and make nice scenes out of them, and the film's washed-out look meshes superbly with its tired, been-around-a-bad-block feel. Big things happen in The Missing Person, or they have happened, but they're never presented as big things; if classic film noir was about "the stuff dreams are made of," then The Missing Person is about the stuff we have to deal with when we wake up every morning in the horrible, beautiful world, and I appreciated the mature themes and quiet moments twined into a genre better known for adolescent thrills and louder flash.
Then again, I'm just a critic; I just have to write about The Missing Person, not try and sell it or make money off it. Hopefully the combination of favorable reviews and Shannon's new Oscar-nominee status will make it possible for a distributor to take a chance on making a profit with the film, but the mysteries of modern exhibition are beyond even the most talented detective, and the film's avoidance of shouting and shooing and simplicity makes it a hard sell (and also makes it exactly the kind of thing I love to see on the big screen). The Missing Person isn't about one man solving a mystery, even though it is; sit with it a while and enjoy the crime and charm it offers and you carefuly, expertly get pulled into hearing its quiet-but-firm point that everything is a mystery, and that some mysteries simply can't be solved.