It’s always a treat when a classic genre is coupled with a modern setting and contemporary story. In this case, the film noir style is mixed into a timely story about loss and coping with 9/11 as a backdrop. The Missing Person is a perfect example of disparate elements coming together to create something that is altogether unexpected, yet familiar. The noir style works here, given the subject matter, but at times it feels tacked on, with not enough focus devoted to the story proper. Nevertheless, fans of film noir and subtle filmmaking will discover a rare gem with The Missing Person.
John Rosow (Michael Shannon) is a down and out private detective living in Chicago. He’s haunted by memories of a woman, which drives Rosow to numb himself with alcohol as often as he can. One morning, he receives a phone call from a high-priced New York attorney who wants Rosow to tail a man to Los Angeles, offering nothing more in details. Convinced by a cash advance, the recommendation of an old colleague and the attorney’s beautiful assistant, Rosow accepts the case and boards the next train. His journey leads him out of the country into emotional and personal territory that Rosow isn’t ready to explore.
For fans of film noir, all of the distinguishing characters and characteristics are present in The Missing Person. Rosow is the committed detective with a sordid past and too many vices. He takes a job from a mysterious employer whose motives aren’t clear. Rosow is hassled by law enforcement for poking his nose around their business, engaging him in a fast-talking witty exchange. Yet Rosow also has the requisite chum on the police force he can go to for help. Throw in a femme fatale, a seedy gangster type and a pastiche of memorable characters and you have yourself everything you need for the noir genre.
The noir tropes are used well, but don’t always feel organic to the film. The scene when Rosow has a run-in with federal agents stands out in particular, with the banter turning too familiar too quickly for strangers. The femme fatale is given such short screen time it’s difficult for her to even earn her title. Most glaringly, there just isn’t enough inner monologue to give us insight into Rosow. Nevertheless, writer/director Noel Buschel still does a fine job delivering the look and feel one would expect from a noir film. The colors are desaturated and drab, the locations are moody and atmospheric and most of the characters have just enough personality to be likable without begging for more screen time.
Michael Shannon performs adequately as Rosow. He’s everything an audience would expect from a modern-day, classic-tinged hard boiled detective. He speaks in short statements, isn’t very personable and has a strong jaw. Regrettably, he doesn’t get much opportunity to crawl out of his tough-guy shell. When he does, the moment feels forced. Still, at the end of the day, audiences won’t have a hard time watching him carry the movie.
While the entire film is great to look at, some shots are truly inspired. A long take of the lights that have replaced the World Trade Center as a cloud passes through is hauntingly beautiful and will bring tears to the eyes of those who remember the smoking buildings. Another gorgeous shot involves a silhouetted scene against a moonlit sky and a deadpan Rosow inner monologue. It’s quintessential noir, dripping in style and so beautiful to look at that it almost makes up for any entertainment shortcomings the rest of the film may have had.