Domestic disturbances

Mill Valley Film Festival picks uncover mysteries of the home front
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FILM "Some of our most exquisite murders have been domestic, performed with tenderness in simple, homey places like the kitchen table," Alfred Hitchcock observed.

While Hitch was the doyen of everyday suspense — capturing the foreboding whistle of a boiling kettle or the pendulous noose formed by a necktie — his vision of the violent-domestic was hardly singular. This year's Mill Valley Film Festival showcases two very different films dedicated to exploring the tenuous relationship between crime and the domestic front, in all its various incarnations.

In Noah Buschel's traveling noir homage The Missing Person, a case of domestic subterfuge becomes a laconic meditation on loneliness and absolution in the post-9/11 New York City. Starring Michael Shannon (2008's Revolutionary Road) as gin-soaked private investigator John Rosow, The Missing Person begins with the classic tropes of the Philip Marlowe feuilleton — a mysterious caller, aided by an attractive secretary (Amy Ryan), offers the down-and-out PI a sum of money to follow a unnamed man on a LA-bound express train from Chicago. The surly and self-deprecating Rosow immediately takes the case, though it appears his decision is motivated as much by boredom and a nasty hangover than by lucre. From a nearby compartment, Rosow surveils the very innocuous-looking mark who travels with a young, Hispanic child. Presuming the worst, the PI puts two and two together and speculates that he's been hired to tail a serial pedophile. However, the story is much more complicated than it initially appears: a family has indeed been torn apart but it is not the one Rosow suspects.

While the meticulous narrative of Buschel's film takes the de rigeur twists and turns of classic noir, The Missing Person's plot is, by and large, immaterial to its penetrating meditation on person and place. Despite his chronic dipsomania, Rosow is charming and witty, spinning slangy argot, gruff one-liners and double entendres around every chance encounter, as if he were some hybrid of Mike Hammer and Noël Coward. "I'm in the hide and seek business," he responds to a potential female conquest when asked of his profession. "That's a game that kids play," she continues. "Well, if you add some money to it, it's for adults," he shoots back. "Well, what are you doing – hiding or seeking?" she asks. "I'm drinking," Rosow concludes, finishing off his highball.

But Buschel is careful not to inundate his audience with a wisecracking "talkie;" rather he seduces them with long, silky strands of West Coast jazz — all saxophones and tinkling piano — as Rosow crisscrosses the parched sands outlying Los Angeles, lurches into an anonymous motel room in a drunken stupor, or fantasizes (in the rich cobalt shades of a Blue Note album cover) of a wife and life he left long ago. In other moments, Shannon's ungainly frame and wall-eyed gaze dominates the frame, reacting and reflecting upon the sadness that appears to pervade his postlapsarian, cloak and dagger world.

If one is tempted to pronounce The Missing Person a unique and innovative form of filmmaking, it is because such deliberate care taken in the details: its soundtrack, cinematography and mise-en-scene are rarities in the slick, post-80s crime drama. Filmed on 16mm and bleached of the sharp hues common to contemporary cinema, the colors and textures of Ryan Samul's cinematography have the odd, anachronistic feel of mid-70s neo-noir. The Conversation (1974), Chinatown (1974), and The Long Goodbye (1973) come to mind.

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