The Missing Person (2009, Buschel)

The Missing Person eases into a modern Noir scenario, beginning in a dark hotel room and a deafening phone call. Private detective John Rosow (Michael Shannon) answers and the voice on the other end  hires him to tail a man and boy from Chicago to Los Angeles. There’s no indication of a crime, but as in most Noir films, the surface never holds all the answers.

Slowly spinning entangled webs of deception, Noah Buschel’s restrained, brooding detective story is vintage old school filmmaking. Seedy characters trade jabs of stylized dialogue, sizing each other up through prose rather than action. Threats carry more weight that anything, and actual violence seems to be hidden in past trauma’s more than present conflicts.

During the measured, almost tactical opening third, it’s hard to pin down exactly where the film is headed, making for long passages of dramatically inert interactions between Rosow and fringe characters. But Buschel uses Shannon’s aching presence to carry the muted narrative, jumping across the continent again for a haunting third act in New York City. More so than any Neo-noir, The Missing Person takes its character’s suffering deathly seriously, developing Rosow in particular from hard-nosed cypher into a complex human being.

While The Missing Person isn’t stylistically innovative, or even that exciting, the film oozes regret, guilt, and desperation. Each character collectively yearns for a fresh start, even when their actions say otherwise. Mood and atmosphere dominate the dark Los Angeles alley-ways and the dank New York night clubs, holding off the fire of repressed memories that are eating these characters from the inside out. Time doesn’t heal old wounds, nor does isolationism or greed. The only hope for a lonely drunken detective is human interaction, but in this acidic world, that’s hard to come by.

Shotgun Stories (Nichols, 2008)

Is it too early to call Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories the American film of the year? Probably, but it’s a devastating masterpiece all the same, a film consumed by a generational hatred occurring on multiple levels between two sets of half-brothers feuding over the honor of their recently deceased father. Unlike typical Hollywood representations of the deep South and it’s inhabitants, Shotgun Storiesdepicts a complex locale and population embalmed by the silence of a beautiful and longing countryside, entrenched in the daily routine of a slow-paced existence completely at peace with itself. But underneath the wide shots of open fields, stagnant rivers, and desolate country roads lies a forging tension, layered by generations of past experiences which have carved these characters into ticking time bombs. On one side Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon), and Kid (Barlow Jacobs), remember a drunk father who they’ve hated all their lives, and on on the other, four young men of the same patriarch who represent a more affluent, born again affinity. The impending clashes occur offscreen, and we are left, like the characters, with the consequences of their violent actions. Shotgun Stories paints a very American nightmare, where vengeance is validated through the protection of family, property, and honor, no matter who gets caught in the crossfire. The most interesting aspect of Shotgun Stories remains the unseen influence parental control has over the hatred, ignorance, and destruction of a family torn apart by years of division. When a Civil War of such glaring complexity achieves this a high level of involvement and tension, the end result is nothing short of breathtaking.