John Rosow (Michael Shannon) used to be NYPD, now he’s a Chicago PI and a strong candidate for a DUI. He’s woken from some state close to comatose by the proverbial ringing phone, requesting his services to tail someone all the way down to LA. Initially the gig seems conspicuously easy, with the subject hiding in plain sight, taking the train, not bothering to disguise the fact that he’s a middle-aged white guy traveling with a handsome Mexican boy. Things gradually become more arduous. The technologically impaired Rosow has to buy a phone that takes pictures from a gentleman named Boo Boo (Mark Ventimiglia), pay a Serpico-obsessed cabbie named Hero (John Ventimiglia) $500 to let him hitch a ride in his trunk, and ward off the amorous attentions of an altogether fetching cougar named Lana (Margaret Colin) who sleep-talks to her mother about blueberry pancakes. But nobody told Rosow switching professions in your mid-30s would be easy.
Writer/director Noah Buschel’s The Missing Person is loaded with pronounced eccentricities, but its also loaded with amiable, detailed performances, thanks to an impressive cast of film, television and theatre veterans who unanimously seem to jive with Buschel’s kooky, decidedly unhurried neo-noir. Genre tropes are dusted off and tickled back to life, with Rosow regularly knocked unconscious, dreaming of some lost lover, or trading banter with good-cop/bad-cop feds who mysteriously turn up in the motel parking lot. At times it’s a little cute, a little cartoonish, all the coffee and jazz and smokes and booze and abundant anachronisms. Personally, I like coffee and jazz and booze, but besides it’s all leading somewhere, all in the service of a thoughtful narrative arc that exchanges noir’s foundations in postwar despair for a post-9/11 dispersion. This is a story about going missing, staying missing, and liking it, about being missing as a state of grace, and helping others to disappear for their own good.
None of which screams box office gold, I suppose, and thus, in this country anyway, The Missing Person makes its debut at your local video store rather than your local cinema. It plays well on TV, even if Ryan Samul’s HD imagery is a little annoyingly heavy on ostentatious filters. It also plays to the strengths of Shannon, an actor whose very particular peculiarities won him an Oscar nod for Revolutionary Road, not to mention plum nut-job and/or jerk-off parts in films by William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, and Werner Herzog. He’s really quite ideal for the strange, haunted, lumbering hero of The Missing Person, so withdrawn he could initially be mistaken for the title character. Shannon shuffles and groans through most of the film. I had to laugh at certain shots that play out with the sole item on the soundtrack being Shannon’s amplified wheeze. But it’s a wheeze with a soul, from a face like yesterday’s unrefrigerated lunch. Despite intermittent voice-over, we learn only fragments of Rosow’s past, but we finally know everything we need to know just by spending time with Shannon’s sardonic grin, bleary confusion, and seemingly outsized figure. They speak of a primal wound, one we can trace back to Philip Marlowe, to Jeff Bailey, or to Al Roberts. It’s a feeling that transcends time and genre, even when the setting is as winky as this.