Thursday, November 19, 2009

Film Noir: The Missing Man

The film noir world of railway sleeper cars and smoky jazz clubs might sound like a throwback to the 1940’s. However, reluctant protagonist John Rosow is definitely a creature of the world in which we now live. Like any good anti-hero, Rosow is drinking himself into oblivion, but his angst stems from the tragic events of September 11th in Noah Buschel’s oh-so-noir The Missing Person (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Formerly an NYPD detective, Rosow is now a low-rent Chicago P.I., who only wants to sleep off his latest bender. Unfortunately his phone will not leave him in peace. For inexplicable reasons, a power attorney is determined to hire him for a tail job. Before he fully realizes it, Miss Charley, his client’s frosty assistant, has bundled him onto an overnight express train to Los Angeles with an envelope of expense money and a heap of contempt.

The first two thirds of Missing often veer perilously close to self-parody, particularly during Rosow’s over-the-top voiceovers. However, the film offers a third act surprise, finding unexpected significance in its post-9/11 premise.

It turns out Harold Fulmer, Rosow’s quarry, was one of the World Trade Center’s “missing” who took advantage of the tragedy to abandon his wife. Fulmer hardly left her in a financial lurch though. In fact, he seems to be a good person engaged in selfless work, despite the sketchiness of his associates. He is even a passionate jazz listener, so he cannot be all bad. Still, Rosow has his own reasons for identifying with Mrs. Fulmer that also involve that hallowed ground in Lower Manhattan.

Following in the tradition of many classic film noirs, Missing effectively employs the blue notes of jazz to evoke the moodiness of its transient, nocturnal world. Making a welcome cameo appearance, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano is seen and heard playing in a New York night club. Missing also makes effective use of classic Bud Powell recordings, like “Glass Enclosure,” of which Fulmer is a professed fan.

While Missing’s shrewdly selected music might sparkle, it is one of the most deliberately dingy looking films you can ever hope to see on screen. If nothing else, Ryan Samuel’s cinematography makes Rosow’s life look convincingly grim. To his credit, the granite-faced Michael Shannon never betrays a hint of irony as the lowlife gumshoe. He also has some nice screen chemistry Amy Ryan as Miss Charley. Several of the other supporting players are more than a little stiff though, further accentuating the film’s stylistic excesses.

Turning on a dime from highly exaggerated noir to existential contemporary drama, Missing is a film with a lot of ragged edges. However, it handles the 9/11story elements with proper respect. You also have to give due props to any new film exhibiting a jazz aesthetic. An odd blend of hardboiled attitude and apparently genuine human empathy, Missing has its moments for connoisseurs of the film noir genre. Yet, it will likely prove far too stylized and idiosyncratic for general audiences. It opens tomorrow at the Village East.