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The Missing Person ****

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– “Are you hiding, or seeking?
– “Right now, I’m drinking.

Apparently, noir revival is a well established method of tackling contemporary moral and political anxieties: developing anti-heroes who stand outside ethical murk and presenting compelling arguments without becoming didactic. Just as Brick addresses teen violence without being pigeonholed as a Columbine movie, The Missing Person tackles the psychic fallout of 11 September 2001 without being a 9/11 movie. As far as I can tell, these are not conscious considerations. In fact, 9/11 is just part of the fabric of reality which informs and subverts what is essentially a love letter to a forgotten era. Taking the conventions of classic film noir and twisting them to reflect the modern world, Buschel’s pacific sensibility pervades The Missing Person.

Missing Person2

Michael Shannon (Oscar-nominated for his part in Revolutionary Road), plays John Rosow: a grizzled, groaning, alcoholic, apathetic, New York private dick. Other descriptions which have caught my imagination include: “craggy, cool and endearingly naive”, or “a tragic slab of a man who we can’t help but root for”. Buschel initially had in mind Vince Vaughn (who might have been terrible as Rosow) but as fate had it, Amy Ryan (who supports as Miss Charley, secretary to Rosow’s employer) suggested her then partner Shannon as “another tall guy”. Shannon’s face, you will recall, is remarkable – perfect for the part – like a hybrid of Cagney and Liotta. He can draw an accent to match the face: Buschel casually describes him as “a natural drunk”. His quietly lived-in performance, perfectly executed dead-pan quips, and the flashes of insight that surface from his “watery drunk eyes” are captivating. In fact, Shannon effectively carries the film.

Rosow is the epitome of the film’s style, a symbol for the nostalgic memory of a New York now forgotten. That theme also plays out with Hero Furillo (who is basically written as himself, John Ventimiglia, of Sopranos fame) who bitches incessantly about how times have changed. Rosow, however, stands for a character type and a cinema that has passed – his bemusement at his mobile phone and its pictures, his inability to pronounce “Google”, and his flagrant disregard of anti-smoking laws, are all part of a subtextual fight against modernity. It is as though Rosow was ripped from 1946 straight to 2009.


Missing Person

This is a mystery of unexpected emotional layers, drawing back to a crisis that links Rosow inescapably to his troubled quarry. His job is to trail a man who seems to be a pederast from Chicago to LA. But it turns out Harold Fullmer (Frank Wood, a character actor whose indistinct familiarity adds dimension to his personality before he even speaks) is no mere pederast. He is a missing person, who seems to be rescuing young boys from horrid lives in the US sex industry and handing them to a sinister Mexican drug-running operation (whose boss has miniaturised and obfuscating menace to complicate the good-natured gangster cliché). Ultimately, Rosow believes he is to play delivery boy for a substantial fee. We then discover that Fullmer decided to escape his wife, his financial job, and the city of New York, having narrowly escaped death on 11 September. Due to his random and unlikely discovery in Mexico, Mrs Fullmer seeks him out for confrontation. It is easy for his wife to fund the finder’s fee because compensation for family of the dead was commensurate to their expected lifetime salary, and Harold was a top broker. But there’s also some mischief going on with the lawyers who want him to ‘remain dead’ for the sake of their fees.

Narration throughout the film seems to be delivered as an internal monologue to Rosow’s presumably deceased wife. Buschel avoids the often critical problems of voice-over by insisting on showing rather than telling. Here the grizzly, rambling drawl of Shannon is not necessary, but adds dimensionality. So much so that more really is more, and Buschel wanted to fit more of it in. There is a sublime, tight, dramatic script which is oddly devoid of action. There is effective use of blind-siding complications, random unexpected acts. And Buschel refuses to titillate in any way – no sex, no violence. What could have been an explicit sex scene (and would have been an implicit sex scene in an authentic noir) becomes quite the opposite – Rosow insists his handcuffs are “for work”, and asks his partner to join him in a slow dance, as he changes the radio from a modern tune to a classic big band number. What could have been a violent encounter with old buddy Gus Papitos after his double-cross just becomes a chat over some Chinese food, and a sighing expression of disappointment. Buschel wanted his film to be physically passive, contrary to the classics. This contrast is best captured by Rosow’s humble, virtuous response to Mrs Fullmer’s slight mockery of his Bogartic affectations.


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All the film’s aesthetic choices reflect either its noir reminiscences or their contemporary subversion – a carefully woven tapestry of wardrobe, language, props, music, television clips, framing and celluloid; all the tropes of character, phraseology and filmic grammar; yet cool, stylish, sometimes almost hip. Director of photography, Ryan Samul, saw the crumpled suit worn by Shannon and concluded The Missing Person would require a “urine stained” style. And from there came the soft, faded, colour-mute palette of the film. There are occasional flirtations with saturation (a dream sequence of Rosow’s wife), deep blues (another melancholic memory of his wife) and red (when he bears his vulnerable soul in the tender embrace of a jazz bar). Samul also seems comfortable with very low light, capturing scenes veiled in such shadow as would be impossible in the black and white era of noir film. All of this was captured on 16mm desaturated film, perfecting a weary style. It is matched by a phenomenal soundtrack taken straight from Buschel’s iPod. The musical director managed to ensure the budget wasn’t overstretched (no Miles Davis, as a result) but on the whole, Buschel seems to have had complete artistic control. The Missing Person really is a product of his singular imagination, a real auteur picture.

Some audiences will lack the patience for what is ostensibly a mood-oriented film. WIthout typical character development and plot-drive, it could seem a little too slow and full of its poetry to be accessible or engaging. It’s a hard sell, because some people think nothing happens, or can’t appreciate its modesty. But this is precisely why it is so great. The real genius of Buschel’s subversion is that rather than a bad man with a gun, the villain is the sense of pain in the world; that rather than just evoking archetypes, these characters exist as they are because of grief, because of an inability to cope with trauma; and it reflects that in us: it’s a collision of the imaginary detective with the real of his pain, and a confrontation with the Real for the audience. Much as the event of 9/11 reintroduced America to the Real, it correspondingly penetrates the skin of historical cinema. What starts and finishes as a detective story achieves a transcendental aspect. And all of this, grown from Buschel’s simple desire to tell a story by taking inspiration from his relation to the world around him.

A couple of its most poetic scenes to remember The Missing Person by: Rosow stumbles out his motel room upon discovering the sound of music from a back alley – there he finds two FBI agents sat in a car, snooping on his mark – he joins them and the film explodes into confrontational dialogue from almost perpetual silence – they come to an agreement while some unsettling and incongruous Stravinsky plays on the stereo – they offer him a pair of cheap drug-store sunglasses which glow in the dark; and later, Rosow hides in the trunk of Hero’s taxicab, as it speeds Fullmer to Mexico – pitch black, all we can see are his luminous sunglasses floating sideways in space. Amazing…


The Missing Person, Dir. & Writ. Noah Buschel, Star. Michael Shannon & Amy Ryan, The 7th Floor, USA, 2009
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Written by James P. Campbell

25/06/2009 at 21:10

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