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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.21.18] mystery

Aneesh Chaganty's first feature as director will inevitably suffer from comparisons to David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl, and while it may be a draw for its unique-selling-point (the film's POV is restricted entirely to computer and smartphone screens), it's hard to resist seeing this as something of a retread. Additionally, although actor John Cho makes for a strong and sympathetic leading man (and it's nice to see how far he's come since his 'Harold and Kumar' days), he's provided with a relatively perfunctory script and weak supporting cast. The film looks great for what it is, a kind of 'techno-thriller' for the 2010s, but take away the apps and the webcams, and you're left with a fairly standard whodunit mystery.

Cho plays David Kim, a widower whose wife Pamela has recently passed away following a battle with lymphatic cancer. On the surface his teenage daughter Margot appears to be coping relatively well with their loss, but when she disappears without a trace her father begins to discover dark secrets about her private life. Along with a helpful police detective (Debra Messing), David delves into the frequently unpleasant world of online social media in an attempt to figure out what's going on, and who his daughter really is, or perhaps was...

I suppose it's best to start with the positive, and it must be said that Chaganty does a superb job of introducing us to David and his family, and to the unusual stylistic approach of the film. The opening scenes take place (literally) on a family computer during its initial start up, as the family choose their own usernames, profile pictures and desktop themes, and start to upload photos, videos and diary entries which neatly bring us up to speed on their personalities and personal histories. This slick and well-edited introduction shows us their journey as a family, from early years during which we see Margot's birthdays and piano recitals, and through each stage of Pamela's illness, before finally resting on the image of a memorial invitation being sent to a printer. It's like the world's saddest advert for a Windows operating system, but it works incredibly well.

As the story continues we observe the plot unfolding in a series of webchats, video calls and online news stories, and it's a testament to the inventiveness of the film-makers and editors that, far from proving an unwelcome distraction, this technique is, on the whole, successful.

The film is well-made, and while other movies have attempted to use unique POV gimmicks like this to their advantage and failed (I'm looking at you, Unfriended), Searching actually benefits from utilising this style. If the movie seeks to unnerve us by exposing just how much of our lives now revolve around online experiences, then what better way than to confront us with the notion that such experiences can now, even quite realistically, be complied into a coherent narrative film experience. This is all great, but does the film work as... well, as an actual film?

While the film's set-up is exciting and well-handled - the revelations of Margot's secret life, her depression, loneliness and retreat into online relationships providing a sense of mounting dread as to her fate - once the authorities become involved, the film's perspective rapidly expands, taking us away from the intimacy of experiencing David's situation by shifting to a series of online news reports and reaction videos, and it's all to the detriment of the film. It's as though the writers felt the need to open a window and let in air, but it just feels slightly jarring. This is also where Searching owes its biggest debt to Flynn, as opportunistic ghouls and trolls start to revel in David's pain and he begins to collapse from stress.

From this shift in tone the film never really recovers; the plot finds itself bogged down in a series of frankly bizarre twists and false-endings, some passed over quickly, others over-explained and provided altogether too much screen-time. It feels like a classic case of a strong, exciting first act which slowly falls apart until, finally, we lose patience and sit back, exhausted. How do you end a film like this? I don't know, but it's not with four twists. Four. Go ahead and count them. Four.
John Cho is, I would say, an inherently likable actor, and here he gives a strong performance as a desperate man facing his worst nightmare. Like Harrison Ford in 'Frantic', Cho starts off mildly concerned, working his way through the film towards a full-blown nervous breakdown. He does this rather well. He won't win any Oscars, but the film benefits enormously from having him on board. The supporting cast fair less well, specifically Messing (who I actually rather like) as Detective Vick. From the get-go Messing seems curiously uncertain of quite how to play her character, and while this may be to keep the audience on edge (could even the cops be a part of some vast conspiracy?), the result is that she seems rattled and stressed by the material. Similarly, conversations between Cho's character and his brother Peter (Joseph Lee) feel inauthentic, to the point that I was surprised at being reminded towards the end that they were, in-fact, supposed to be brothers.

On the whole, Searching works pretty well as middle-of-the-road entertainment, but I suspect it will be remembered more for its skillful use of Desktop POV (is there a proper name for this style yet?), rather than for its script or characters, neither of which are particularly memorable. Still, a lukewarm recommendation from someone who still doesn't use a smartphone has to be worth something.

Recommended Release: Open Windows

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