Searching and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty
Okay, so I’ll admit that maybe the problem is ME as this is yet another movie I hadn’t heard about until everyone else started talking about, so maybe I just completely missed a good chunk of trailers for the month of August. Even with that though, I STILL managed to hear SOMETHING about this movie because of how much good word of mouth it was getting which is a lot more than I can say for the completely incompetent A.X.L. or the surprisingly decent but still underexposed KIN. The positive buzz on this film has been pretty much universal which we haven’t gotten since probably Sorry to Bother You which was easily one of the best films of the year, and I’ve been hearing similar rumblings about this film being up to that level as well; albeit with a lot less class politics and… other things that were in that movie. Does Searching manage to live up to the hype that has been building for some time now, or will this be another overpraised mess that I’m gonna have to jump in and be the sourpuss about? Let’s find out!!
The Kim family is living a happy and carefree life in the early to mid two thousands where the worst thing that could happen to them is another Nickelback single taking over the radio. That is until the mother Pamela (Sara Sohn) falls ill and dies right around the time that her daughter Margot (Alex Jayne, Megan Liu, Kya Dawn Lau, and Michelle La at various ages) is starting high school which only makes things more strained between her and her father David (John Cho). One day, Margot just up and disappears after an AP Bio study group and no one seems to know where she is. David calls the police and is in contact with a Detective Rosemary (Debra Messing) while he checks her daughters laptop for any clues because time is of the essence when it comes to disappearances like this and everyone needs to do whatever they can to ensure her safe return, even if David slowly starts to realize that maybe he didn’t know his daughter that well in the first place. Can David unlock whatever mystery is at the heart of her disappearance with only her laptop, browser history, and social media accounts? What can the police uncover about her last moments before disappearing, and will David be able to accept whatever it is they find? Wait, were they SERIOUSLY using Windows XP until 2015!? I mean I know it had a pretty good shelf life, but even MICROSOFT was done with that by 2014!!
So… remember how I was endlessly gushing about how fantastic a job the first half Unfriended: Dark Web did in conveying a compelling narrative through the use of computer screens? Well it looks like someone was listening to me (or that conceit is gonna be a thing going forward) as this film not only manages to do it with a better narrative but does so with a narrative that doesn’t lose its freaking mind about halfway through. It’s still got a few issues here and there as most movies revolving around a BIG MYSTERY often do and there are a few cheats here and there to keep the story going, but the story and characters are great enough that this could have worked without the gimmick but it’s such a fresh and enjoyable experience because of how well they nailed it with some very impressive attempts at creating cinematic spectacle and deeply emotional interactions in such a limited style. I mean at this rate we’ll probably just stop making video game movies and skip over to Let’s Play on the big screen which SOUNDS like the worst thing imaginable, but if this creative team was behind it I’d certainly give them the benefit of the doubt!
Now hopefully I’m not repeating myself too much here from my Dark Web review, but this movie really does do a phenomenal job of using something most of us are familiar with, i.e. a computer screen, and telling a story through that shared experience. We can relate to someone writing out a message over and over again before hitting send while also getting insight into the character’s mental state; all without ever having to see them. There’s a sense of exploration and discovery as John Cho browses through the hard drive to try and find anything that will give him a lead to his daughter as well as finding out more about her and what she must have been going through while he was emotionally detached. I’m sure most of us are guilty of this where we try to bury what’s bothering us for the benefit of others which ultimately backfires on everyone involved, and the way it’s done here through messages, social media accounts, and other details that John Cho finds on this computer is just as well realized as the way the pieces fall into place to solve the mystery of her disappearance. There are places where the movie could be said to cheat here and there as there are points where we’re watching news footage but not from John Cho’s perspective; presumably someone ELSE is watching those videos that John Cho is acting in which the film never really addresses. Now I’m not gonna lie and say that it wasn’t NOTICEABLE when something like that happened, but really it’s not enough to hurt the movie and it’s worth pointing out that creative license can be afforded to movies to get us from point A to point B provided they don’t strain our suspension of disbelief too far and that the payoff ultimately is worth it. Despite some rocky moments here and there (mostly in the second act), I’d say that everything this movie does, cheat or not, is absolutely worth it in order to tell this story in the most effective way possible, and I’m sure that after seeing how well it’s been done here that many other filmmakers will take a crack at it and develop their own techniques and creative camera tricks which will only make these kind of films better and more polished as time goes on.
While I hesitate to say that it will ALWAYS work better this way, it really does help that this is more of a THRILLER than a HORROR FILM which means that it’s easier to mount tension over time with discoveries instead of contriving a sense of danger over a computer screen. Not IMPOSSIBLE mind you as Dark Web did have its moments of genuine tension, but the direction they ended up going to facilitate MAXIMUM HORROR is what ultimately kneecapped such a promising film. Here, there’s a ticking clock to be sure but it’s one that doesn’t facilitate a moment by moment sense of mounting tension; rather it slowly creeps up a feeling of dread that permeates throughout the movie as each new revelation seems to get them closer to finding Margot but also makes it that much clearer that they may not like what they find. The plot itself is really fascinating in its own right that’s only made better by how expertly they use modern technology and the near limitless possibilities of a computer screen to get that feeling across, though I feel that it might have helped a bit if the story was something a tad more straightforward; especially considering the limitations that are still in place even with the rather well realized gimmick.
If I had one problem with this movie it would be the second half, and I know I already said probably a hundred times now that this movie gets the second half right while Dark Web got it oh so wrong, but that’s not saying the second half is PERFECT by any stretch. With any sort of mystery there’s a very hard line to walk where you want to keep your audience in the dark, but have them feel like things are happening despite the fact that they can’t see the whole picture. This movie does indeed have a twist and it’s a pretty good one at that (this could have gone about three or four different ways and thankfully they chose the RIGHT one), but it’s ALMOST one that works against the movie in hindsight. The movie kind of gets frustrating in the latter half as there’s a lot of dead ends, red herrings, and running around in circles which makes it a bit more tedious to sit through than the scenes in the first half where we were making more discoveries and forward progression. Now the thing is, the twist makes it ALL come together. It’s a bit ridiculous to be sure (with possibly a VERY SLIGHT tinge of ablest fear mongering), but it’s kind of brilliant in the way that it makes even THOSE parts of the movie make sense. That said, I think that the twist itself makes repeat viewings kind of difficult as it does indeed explain so much of this movie, but maybe a bit too much. I haven’t watched it again so maybe it’ll work in a whole different way the second time around, but thinking back on what that twist meant for the rest of the movie, it doesn’t really fix the small amount of tedium I was feeling in the second half the FIRST time seeing it and I feel it might make even MORE of the movie feel tedious the second time.
I don’t want to sound too down on it right at the end here as the movie is still one of the best I’ve seen all year. It’s certainly got a few minor issues here and there but the sheer amount of craftsmanship embedded into every frame of this and how much the concept seems to have advanced in such a short frame of time is an absolutely wonderful sight to behold and I recommend you check it out as soon as you can! I hope that there are more filmmakers looking at this trend and seeing some serious potential for future films in various genres, and not just horror movies or thrillers. I mean now that we’ve gotten John Cho to make an awesome thriller in this style, how about they do this with the next Harold and Kumar movie!?