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The Missing Person

Gin, Cigarettes and Noir

John Rosow (Michael Shannon) is quite the clichéd private detective. Constantly drunk and surrounded in a shroud of cigarette smoke, he’s nevertheless successful, probably due to his lack of inhibition. A contemporary Humphrey Bogart, he carries a chip on his shoulder acting as if actions have no consequences, but it’s 2009 and unlike a Bogart character, Rosow isn’t enviable. He’s sad, lonely, and a bit pathetic.

Writer and director Noah Buschel is quick to point out how times have changed. Smoking has been branded a deadly habit and habitual drinking is a crutch, but still Rosow is the best private investigator around and he’s hired to tail a mysterious man. More mysterious are the circumstances surrounding the case that begins with a call at 5am followed by an immediate visit from his client’s associate Miss Charley (Amy Ryan). He’s given all he needs — time and money — but absent is any information about who the man is and why he should be tailed.

Shannon is undeniably the star of the film, and after his breakout performance in Revolutionary Road, he proves he can carry a picture on his own shoulders. Unfortunately, the film isn’t quite as witty or serious, as it wants it to be. Like Rian Johnson’s Brick in 2005, Buschel appropriates noir for the modern age. While the humor from Brick arose from the High School setting, Buschel wants to force the humor through societal changes. He succeeds as Rosow is constantly berated for his tobacco habit and his dry humor falls flat on many ears, but it isn’t always as natural.

There’s much to enjoy in Shannon’s performance, and Buschel’s keen sense of irony in his character is a refreshing take on the genre. However, it’s Buschel’s attempt to marry Shannon’s character with his task that things become muddy.

Rosow’s man is a missing person, evident from the title. To say too much would ruin the detective story, but the backdrop for the man’s story is 9/11. It turns out it’s also Rosow’s. Despite both men being shaped by the most dramatic event in recent American history, the film never goes too deep into the emotional melodrama that could come along with the association. Bushel is aware of the importance of the event, but unlike Rosow’s vices, doesn’t use it as a crutch.

While the film does fumble at parts, it’s an interesting take on the modern detective story. Noah Buschel knows what he wants, his script just struggles to get there. Thankfully Shannon is able to gloss over some of these faults and the end product is entertaining enough.