This is one of those times where I urge you to watch the movie BEFORE reading my review. The less you know the better.
We often complain about the lack of original films coming out of Hollywood these days — last week saw the release of the 6th Predator movie; in a few weeks time, the 11th Halloween slasher flick will hit the big screens. In other words, Jesus f*cking Christ! But neatly tucked in between both of those (hopefully the latter is less of a disappointment than the former) is a tiny little film by Indian-American helmer, Aneesh Chaganty that’s wholly original. Searching, a film that plays out entirely on computer screens, streaming-video footage, cellphone cameras and iMessage text bubbles. That is what we see. That is all we see. I know, the format isn’t the first of its kind. We previously saw a similarly formatted film four years ago with Unfriended, but that felt a little too gimmicky for my liking. Here, it makes sense. Many of you might be put off by the film’s unconventional execution, understandably so, but if you can slap yourself in the face (twice for good measure), stop being a baby and walk in with an open mind, you will witness something truly unique.
After the first act, the screen turns pitch black. And then a flurry of colour glides around the giant screen. It’s calming. If you’re familiar with computers, you’ll immediately realise that it’s a screensaver. How inventive, I thought to myself. It would prove to be the final moment of serenity before everything goes sideways. When David Kim (John Cho) wakes up the next day, he gives his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La) a phone call, but she doesn’t pick up, nor does she call back. No biggie. It’s a Friday and she must be at school. He leaves her text messages but there’s no reply. An hour turns to two and then seven. David starts to worry. He rings the school, only to find out that his daughter never even showed up. It finally sets in and he calls the cops. Margot is missing.
What follows is a smart, arresting and absolutely stirring whodunit-thriller, one that will keep your eyes glued to the screen, enraptured by the proceedings and analysing every single frame as it goes along. But I have to bring up an argument I had with myself driving home from the cinema last night. You see, I’m the kinda guy that loves films that deconstructs and strips a character down to their bare bones. The reason why I find Hacksaw Ridge to be a far superior film than say, Dunkirk. One’s a character study and the other is a cinematic roller coaster ride. Searching‘s format prevents the kind of character development that can be found in the best crime-mystery-thrillers, like Fincher’s Seven or Gone Girl. So that’s a bummer. But Aneesh Chaganty isn’t trying to make a Gone Girl. Instead, he’s offered a haunting look at how we live our lives through our screens. The lack of conventional character development makes perfect sense here. Our characters are only what they present themselves online. And, a lack of conventional character development doesn’t equate to an absence of three-dimensional characters.
Which brings me to Chaganty’s attention to detail. Consider the following sequence. In an effort to aid the cops in the investigation, David tries to look through Margot’s social media accounts. That he Googles ‘Margot Kim *Location* social media accounts’ tells us that he doesn’t have social media accounts of his own. But Margot’s profiles are all private — this implies that she isn’t necessarily the open book her dad thinks she is. So David turns on Margot’s laptop and tries to access her Facebook that way. We see the cursor remain still at the password section, before moving towards the ‘forgot password’ icon. Facebook says it sent the password reset key to the user’s email. David then tries to access Margot’s email, which is also logged out. That she has all her accounts logged out on her personal laptop confirms that she’s an extremely private person. He clicks ‘forgot password’ on that too. Gmail says it has sent the password reset key to the alternative email, [email protected] Now David has to turn on the old family desktop and access his wife’s email, which he naturally knows the password to. From there he’s able to access Margot’s email and then her Facebook and then her Instagram and her Twitter.
I wonder how this scene will play out to someone who isn’t too (or at all) familiar with all this social media and internet mumbo jumbo. I wonder if it would fly over their heads. But I was sitting in a theatre semi-packed with millennials and we were enthralled — you could feel it in the air. Just from that sequence alone, without even looking at John Cho’s facial reactions and body language, we get the sense that David is desperate and determined. That the gears in his head are spinning fast and furious. And that he is also probably in a state of disarray. We also get a feel for the characters through the text messages we see (i.e David’s backspacing the word “mother” and Margot’s one-word responses).
Searching is as much a commentary and satire on our digital age as it is a crime-thriller. This is by no means a comedy, but it does contain some of the best jokes of the year. David notices a guy by the name of Derek Ellis borderline harassing Margot on Instagram (he leaves the brinjal and squirt emoji in the comments section of her pictures). David clicks on his profile and we see a guy in a beanie smoking a hookah. I’m sure if David went through Derek’s Facebook page, we would find statuses like “fuck bitches, get money” and links to Avenged Sevenfold music videos. When questioned about his whereabouts on the night of Margot’s disappearance, Derek is adamant to come clean, until he finally breaks… Justin Bieber concert. The cinema burst out laughing. Again, I wonder if people much older than me would get why this joke is absolutely note-perfect. The ultimate punchline comes when people who previously said they aren’t close to Margot, start making YouTube videos claiming they’re Margot’s best friend (of course, they’re bawling their eyes out), once Margot’s case started trending on the interwebs.
And then there’s the foreshadowing. Oh, the sweet, sweet foreshadowing! Far too often we watch a whodunit and when the big reveal takes place, it either falls flat or makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. This happens when there’s nothing throughout the movie that points towards X being the answer. Not a single clue, not a trace of easter eggs. Last year’s Murder on the Orient Express is one such movie. But Searching has a lot of the answers in plain sight and if you’re smarter than all the characters (I wasn’t), you’ll be able to solve the mystery before they do (I didn’t). Things that happen very early in the film, like the placement of certain objects or certain things characters say in passing — I am trying so hard not to spoil anything — will prove to be important much later in the film. There’s also a lot of clever misdirection that doubles as a commentary on how people tend to misinterpret text messages.
This is a surprisingly internal film, as far as performances go. Besides a couple of burst of emotions, our lead character doesn’t explicitly express himself in a loud manner. He doesn’t shout or wail on top of his lungs that his daughter is missing. He’s quiet. But he wears a tired look on his face, a face that also suggests, along with the nuances of his voice, that he’s masking his worry and panic. The same can be said about our primary supporting character Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing).
Besides the ending, which feels a little too simple, a little too sunshine and rainbow considering everything that came before it, this movie works really well on multiple levels. Searching is both a butt-clenching crime-thriller and an effective commentary/satire on the unique time we live in right now. Will this go down as one of the all-time great crime-thrillers? Probably not. Not for me, at least. But damn, Aneesh Chaganty has just proved that he’s a director we should keep our eyes on moving forward, in his debut film no less. Hats off to you Mr Chaganty!
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Many of you might be put off by the film's unconventional execution, understandably so, but if you can slap yourself in the face (twice for good measure), stop being a baby and walk in with an open mind, you will witness something truly unique.