Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Missing Person

Dir: Noah Buschel
Viewed From: The Balcony

What to do with the detective story? The literary rediscovery of American and European pulp fictions had to do with figuring out how authors and directors could smuggle sex, drugs and violence into the the culture, but that aspect seems pretty tame in the twenty-first century. It's news now when a movie (like say Wendy and Lucy) doesn't include the big three, and anyone watching more than twenty minutes of network advertising will be bombarded with enough vice to ensure a few weeks at the Sunday confessional. Conversely, pulp has become passe, with decidedly non-subversive writers like Michael Chabon, David Eggers, and Nick Hornby beating the genre into submission.

So, what's a good crime story to do? The answer, as I found out in watching The Missing Person, is to (mostly) remove the seedier aspects and focus on the existential dilemma. Sure our protagonist John Rosow (Michael Shannon) is an alcoholic living on the margins of society, and sure he knows when to flash the cash to an informant, and sure the guy's suit is rumpled, but aside from the necessary conventions, director Noah Buschel eschews the rest of the package. There is booze (and Shannon makes a great drunk), but nothing extraordinary; there is some awkward sex (a very game Margaret Colin), but it's overshadowed by a sweet dose of true love; and while there is violence, it's almost comical.

In place of pulp, Buschel gives us real characters, with full and intricate backgrounds. Not only do we of course learn more about Rosow as he pursues what seems like his first case in decades, but we also come to learn about the man he is tracking down, a possible pedophile named Harold Fulmer (Frank Wood). In a sense, the movie is pursuing both characters - the more they try to flee from their pasts the more the audience learns. And aside from a sadly underutilized Amy Ryan,* the remaining characters are also given some depth, none more so than ingeniously named (if you're a baseball fan) Hero Furillo (John Ventimiglia).

*The only explanations for why Ryan is even in the movie must be her status as producer and the desire to add another name on the poster. It's a role a director's daughter could have played. Very disappointed.

The "chase" itself plays out very slowly, and Buschel seems well versed in the classic Hollywood films from the 70s - especially The Conversation (see above image)- from his lazy jazz score to the opening title sequence to the the way he is content to let the camera linger over scenes. There are a few lapses where the direction seems unintentionally aimless (like an odd scene where Rosow meets a few FBI agents), but for the most part it works. It's very serious stuff depicted in a very serious way, yet it has a great playfulness with the topic and is, at times, hilarious. If anything, he seems most indebted to early, pre-critical darling, Eastwood.

To step outside film, however, The Missing Person plays most like a combination between early Paul Auster and Don Delillo's Falling Man. The genius of Auster was to merge (or maybe, completely subsume) the crime novel into the existential novel, and use the missing person story to question just what the heck it is that we are doing in our time on the planet. Without giving away too much, Fulmer's "escape" would look very strange to most people, given the life he was able to lead. Why did he give it up? If that life wasn't good enough, what is? In comparison to Rosow, whose descent into isolation is given sufficient psychological determination, Fulmer's move forces us to ask the bigger questions. We can look at Rosow (or the countless number of private dicks who came before him) as outsiders or loners, but when the Fulmers of the world start going AWOL, we might be in trouble.

This all may seem like a lot for a 30-year old writer/director, and it's possible that charismatic actors like Shannon and Wood (the latter of whom it's impossible not to stare at) added more depth to the story, but I have a feeling that Buschel is - for all his embrace of the possibility of an alternate existence - the real thing.

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