The Missing Person is a private eye story – no two ways about that. He wakes up to the sound of the phone ringing. Get on a train and follow a man to Los Angeles. Why? Because we’re paying you. Once upon a time, my ass. This is how all stories should start.
And oh, what do you know, he’s a heavy drinker. Plenty of classic private eye tropes color the landscape. And the colors of the landscape also color the landscape. Nobody bothers to turn on the lights in rooms, for example. They’re not doing a lot of reading I guess. Yes, this is a film noir, but don’t let its obvious beginnings fool you. There is a lot more under the surface than meets the eye.
Michael Shannon plays leading man John Rosow. He’s old-fashioned, straight out of a book. He’s dumbfounded by cell phones that take pictures. He’s Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. Let it lull you in because the script is going to get flipped. It may look like a Raymond Chandler but after the 60s they started pulling influence from everywhere. We start with Nathaniel West, Evelyn Waugh, and Thomas Pynchon – until they move from LA to New York at least. Then you’ll want to say Paul Auster, sure, but Auster’s all about probing one’s own mind for the answers, and besides, the movie isn’t an anthology, it’s an argument. The Missing Person has nothing to do with existentialism and everything to do with geography. Now I’m going to talk about 9/11.
To solve a complicated mystery, you sometimes have to figure out the framework first, then catch the mastermind. In old Poe stories you decipher the code before you realize it was the gorilla. Then you go to the zoo. In Auster you realize the man walking through the streets is spelling letters on the map. Then you can learn it’s all in your mind. Here the code is 9/11. It’s all drugs and crime and fantasy and sunny weather before that. Nobody figures shit out in L.A. You go there to feel good about getting confused. You go back home when you’re ready to get back to business. Home for John Rosow is New York. Always will be.
9/11 changed these lives. Trying to figure the mystery out without knowing that is like reading Ulysses without knowing what Dublin is, or Naked Lunch without understanding he was on a lot of drugs, or Inherent Vice without accepting that you’ll never be able to follow the plot. 9/11 is the problem and the solution. I hope you’re the least bit intrigued because this is textbook intelligent filmmaking here, and it’s the best statement on film about 9/11 since The 25th Hour.