In The Missing Person, filmmaker Noah Buschel plunks his ‘40s style gumshoe down in the middle of 21st-century America, not merely to wring a few anachronistic yuks from the fish-out-of-water premise, but to suggest an essential divide in consciousness between two eras—in this case not so much the 60-odd years between model and setting but, instead, the several years dividing the present from the new century’s first great tragedy.
“I didn’t know they even had private investigators anymore,” an associate tells John Rosow (Michael Shannon), a whiskey-voiced New York cop turned Chicago P.I. who seems determined to speak like Philip Marlowe. Rosow is a walking anachronism, but at first it seems like we’re living in his world. As he wakes up in his shithole basement apartment (the elevated train whizzing by his window, natch), Buschel shoots him in grainy super-16, digitally altered for maximum skuzziness. While his hero sleepwalks to the train station en route to a West Coast assignment, the fuzziness of the image combined with Rosow’s general sense of nonexistence makes the film seem like a dream of a not-quite determinate period in time, until eventually enough details of the present (an iPhone, a baseball update referencing Manny Ramirez) intrude to shock us awake.
When he arrives in L.A., the modern world stakes its claim on Rosow, even as the low-fi aesthetic continues to mirror his displacement. As he sets about tracking down Harold Fullmer (Frank Wood, the eponymous missing person—unless it’s really Rosow), the detective never drops the hard-boiled pose, but it seems increasingly ridiculous when he has to contend with Segway-riding policemen who bust him for jaywalking, cellphones that can take pictures, and young women who object to being called “missy.” Initially amusing, Shannon’s noir pastiche of a performance soon exhausts its limited potentialities. He’s probably too committed to the deadpan dictates of striking a single note and, with the continual gruffness of his voice and the second-rate hardboiled dialogue he’s forced to speak, the shtick soon goes moldy, at least until the film transforms into something completely different during its second act.
Eventually, which is to say at about the film’s halfway point, we find out why the world appears as such a haze to us—and, presumably, to Rosow. Like the fictional gray fog perpetually hovering over lower Manhattan in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, it’s a correlative for a post-9/11 sense of dislocation. Yes, Missing Person goes there, but a chance conversation with a New York cabbie about the changing city aside (“I can’t afford to live on West 4th street anymore. I can’t even afford Red Hook”), there’s not much in the first half to suggest the direction the film eventually takes and precious little to link the two acts together.
It turns out Rosow’s mark is a 9/11 survivor who simply disappeared after the attacks and, presumed dead, headed off to California to start a new life. Learning he’s still alive, his wife has hired the P.I. to have him brought back home. Rosow doesn’t have too much trouble taking him back to New York, but getting him to visit his wife is another matter. But the detective has mixed feelings about forcing a potentially unwanted reunion, because it turns out that he, too, is a victim of tragedy, having lost his wife in the attacks, and one who similarly took advantage of the circumstances to disappear.
The film’s second half appears primed to tread some interesting existential territory, but Buschel seems confused about what direction he means to take his material. He keeps the machinery of the noir plot (never that fully imagined to start out with) running by introducing an unnecessary subplot involving a conspiracy to obtain Fuller’s 9/11 settlement. He brings in a moral quandary (should Rosow turn his mark over to his wife even if he doesn’t want to be turned over?) and, finally, touches on the slippery question of identity in the wake of cataclysmic event. But with all these threads that Buschel wants to address, and a central character who’s far too thinly imagined to support the weight of such an ambitious program, the film’s sense of purpose starts to seem as fuzzy as the on-screen images. As long as Rosow is quite simply the anachronistic dick, his one-note performance, while somewhat tiresome, is at least sufficient to carry the material, but when he wanders into headier territory, Shannon, with his simple parodic characterization, very soon finds himself out of his league.
As a film concerned with the displacements—emotional, geographic, aesthetic—of tragedy, Missing Person is best when it’s communicating something of the attendant disorientations, which it initially achieves thanks to a visual program approximating its character’s way of viewing the world. But then these disorientations extend to the movie’s half-baked moral conundrums and the confusions become not simply those of the character but of the film itself. Buschel has succeeded in establishing a keen sense of dislocation, but then having achieved this objective, he doesn’t quite know what to do with it and, like the elusive sense of identity experienced by his two survivors, his film soon dissolves into an amorphous, uncertain haze out of which, finally, it can’t see its way out.