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.