' ' Cinema Romantico: The Missing Person

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Missing Person

One item of great importance we have lost amidst all our modernization and progression is the Private Investigator. You know the magnificent archetype - Bogart as Marlowe (or someone else) ceaselessly chain-smoking, drinking brandy "in a glass" and exchanging witty repartee with various eccentrics, low-lifes and angelic devils he encounters while solving some sort of elaborate crime. These days our old-school gumshoes have given way to forensics specialists and David Caruso in sunglasses and so forth. About the only place you can find a P.I. is every Saturday at 5:00 PM on NPR on "Prairie Home Companion" in the form of Garrison Keillor's Guy Noir, who, as the name implies, is really just a spoof and not the real thing. What about the real thing?

"The Missing Person", written and directed by Noah Buschel, released (really, really, really limitedly) in 2009, with a classic shadowy look despite its low budget, has front and center a Private Investigator named John Rosow (Michael Shannon). It is clearly a modern world and Rosow is not in love with it. Anywhere he goes - the L.A. promenade, a taxi, a limo - he is told he can't smoke. He is told he by his hirer that he needs to purchase a cellphone that takes pictures. He goes to the store and finds himself with far too many options. Finally, in that classic grumbly Shannon-ese, he says: "I just want a phone that takes pictures." He is a fierce but functioning alcoholic with a terribly tragic secret from his past that is secret to no one in the film but is only gradually revealed to the audience.

Rosow is hired by the wondrously named Drexler Hewitt and the enigmatic Miss Charley (Amy Ryan, who co-produced) to follow a man and a young boy on a Zephyr train from Chicago to Los Angeles. And this job will take him from California deep into the heart of Mexico and back again before winding up, as it must, on the mean streets of NYC. He will encounter suspicious femme fatales, talkative cabbies, old friends who may not be so friendly, and the obligatory feds who are shadowing his and seemingly everyone else's every move. One of the feds says to Rosow: "You have a sad disposition." Boy ain't that the truth.

There is only a minor helping of rapid-fire repartee here. The dialogue takes it cue from the opening moments when a gin-soaked Rosow takes the phone call that sets the story in motion and barely even grunts the word "Hello." Shannon's speaking pattern, after all, has never been quickest on the draw, and that's perfectly fine because it tempers the film in his dry style. He seems very real in a story that at first might strike you as even-keeled parody before morphing into something much more serious.

Yet, at the same time, the tone is so low key that when the revelations that turn the story serious make their appearance, they fail to resonate with as much grandeur as their subject matter necessitates. The confused disconnect post-9/11 that Buschel wants to evoke never really blooms in full.

But Michael Shannon does. The old noir heroes so often found themselves pulled down the unwanted path by a pretty but devious lady or by some manner of fate. Shannon, however, makes us believe that such a terrible event in our nation's past could and did leave him devastated in such a way that he could not recover. And while the script tries to redeem him with a bit of forced happiness right there at the end, he and we know better.


Andrew K. said...


I guess I'll have to add this to my list of the dozens of films I have to watch. For 3 reasons,

a) I was watching Before the Devil Knows You're Read, and Amy and Michael both have (VERY) minor parts in it, and I thought to myself - why haven't they done a movie together?

b) I publicly promised on the blog to dig into Michael's acting past, so...unavoidable.

c) "I just want a phone that takes pictures." (Also, You recommended it.)

Nick Prigge said...

Aren't they both just great in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead? As small as those parts are, they make a real impression. I love it when Shannon calls Hawke "Chico" and Hoffman "Groucho."

Speaking of which, I just can't wait until you hear him say "I just want a phone that takes pictures." I mean, you KNOW how he says it, but still...

Anonymous said...

Shannon caught my attention in 'Machine Gun Preacher.' He seems a good fit in a noir, he's got that quiet intensity within him and he seems to be one of those rare actors who can be convincing as both kind and evil characters.

Nick Prigge said...

You make such an excellent point. Shannon really has a gift for somehow embodying two traits at once. That's what helped make "Take Shelter" work so well, the way he could hint at being mentally unbalanced but still a regular family man. Such a great actor.

Anonymous said...

Forced happiness at the end? What are you talking about? It's heartbreaking ending. Noah Buschel is great indie filmmaker. His low keyness is his thing. As for Michael Shannon, despite your air of being a Michael Shannon historian, I bet you didn't know his name until a couple years ago. Go back to Cameron Crowe.

Nick Prigge said...

The forced happiness I was referring to - spoiler alert! - was the coupling of Rosow & Miss Charley, which I personally didn't buy. But my sincere apologies if my opinion did not match yours. I mean, I quite liked a lot of the movie, which I thought I made clear (but perhaps not).

As for my status as a Michael Shannon historian, is six years ago a "couple" years ago? I don't think so but I could be mistaken. Although I did remember seeing him in "Pearl Harbor" & "Tigerland" as far back as 2000, though I will confess I did not "know" him at that point.

Plus, according to IMDB, it turns out he was in "Vanilla Sky" too! Which is......hey! How 'bout this?!......a Cameron Crowe movie! I'll re-visit that at once per your helpful recommendation!