I was a teenage magician. Seriously, I was. The Young Magicians of Mann were a group, taught by the magnificent Mike Clague, who put on shows across the Isle of Man, studied all the various crafts of stage magic and, to my disappointment, never quite got round to solving crimes. I loved magic. Still do. Magic taught me about stories and criticism and the social contract of benevolent deception between author and reader. And the core of that benevolent deception is misdirection. Do something flashy with your right hand while your left works the trick in plain sight. It works very nearly every time and it’s at the heart of Searching.
David Kim, played by the always excellent John Cho, is a recent widower who is not remotely okay. Emotionally distant after the death of his wife, David’s universe consists of his job and his daughter Margot, played by the also excellent Michelle La. So when Margot disappears, David’s life collapses. As the search gears up, led by Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing in a career best turn), David discovers just how little he knows about his daughter and how much that may be about to cost him.
This is one of those movies that works however you slice it open. Aneesh Chaganty, who co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian, directs too and locks the action almost entirely onto David’s devices. The first thing we see is a Windows 95 desktop boot up and you could hear the Pavlovian laughter from the audience when it did. Later, that same machine is used to elicit an emotional beat as it becomes apparent it’s Pamela’s machine and, two years after her death, David hasn’t had the heart to boot it up or update it.
Time and again, Chaganty uses this format to add context and depth to the script and characters. The opening montage is especially great and narrowly loses to Firewatch for ‘Sequence most likely to make you cry by doing very little’.As the movie fires up and the case begins, you see messages typed and deleted as well as messages sent, and get a chilling look at how easy it is to hack a gmail account and a Facebook page. One scene racks near unbearable tension simply because David isn’t answering his phone and we can see who it is calling and WE HAVE TO KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON. The list of calls David makes, and receives, is almost always on screen and gives the movie a spine and built-in Cliff notes. The format is never a gimmick, it’s always a tool.
That’s especially true of the third act, where Chaganty and Ohanian’s script embraces the two things that stories like this so seldom do; the ambiguity of the lead and the fundamentally untidy nature of investigations like this. Cho is one of the most instinctively likable, trustworthy actors working in Hollywood today, but you spend the entire middle act of this movie looking sideways at David Kim. The script, and Cho’s near constant on screen presence, start to hint at cracks in David that run deeper than simple grief. That in turn leads to the untidy nature of the case and two leads David follows that ultimately go nowhere. Both culminate in violence and the film is in no hurry to tell you whether it’s justified.
This is also where the misdirection comes in. One of those leads is cleverly front-loaded a half hour earlier. In fact. Chaganty shows you, basically, everything you need to know in the first 25 minutes of the movie, just without context. As a result, the second things start snapping into focus you find yourself reviewing what you saw earlier and understanding it very differently. Just like David, you’re frantically trying to piece things together, one call, one GPS hit, one Facebook post at a time.
The result is an intensely satisfying viewing experience that plays like a beautifully executed magic trick. There’s not a lot that’s surprising here but it’s all presented in a new way and all of it, Cho, La and Messing in particular, impresses. It’s possible you’ll see the rabbit before it’s pulled out of the hat. But trust me, you’ll enjoy the run up even if you do.
Searching will be released on Blu-Ray and digital in November 2018.
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