MAN FROM RENO Review: I Want You to Notice When I’m Not Around
One of the Film Independent Spirit Awards categories I don’t get to vote in is the John Cassavetes Award (it’s instead given by a panel of judges). To be eligible for the award, a film’s production budget must be less than $500,000. Past winners include The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Station Agent (2003), and Middle of Nowhere (2012). Although I don’t get to vote in this category, I still try to see every nominated film. This past voting year’s nominee slate included Blue Ruin, It Felt Like Love, Land Ho!, and Test. It also included Man From Reno, the only film of the five I was unable to catch before the awards were handed out, but one the film’s producers were kind enough to let me screen in advance of its March 27th limited US release.
Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani) is a successful Japanese crime novelist whose “Inspector Takabe” series of books has made her a literary celebrity, but she’s tired and she’s been harboring a secret that has weighed on her for years. Without warning, she abandons her latest press tour and flees to San Francisco to sort out what’s going on in her head. While in the City by the Bay, she meets Akira Suzuki (Kazuki Kitamura), a handsome and mysterious fellow countryman who flirts with her – and hard. Not just alone but also lonely, Aki takes advantage of her temporary anonymity and has an affair with the charming stranger. But when he disappears from her hotel room, other strangers – strangers not so handsome and far too mysterious – start asking her questions she can’t answer.
During the same period of time, Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna), the sheriff of San Marco County, an area just south of San Francisco, accidentally strikes a pedestrian with his car on a foggy night. Circumstances surrounding the pedestrian … a Japanese pedestrian … are curious, but before Del Moral and his daughter/deputy Teresa (Elisha Skorman) can question the man, the stranger disappears from the hospital.
Many questions lead to few answers (and beget more questions) until the paths of Aki and Del Moral finally cross and the two can compare notes to figure out where their missing men went. If only it were that easy.
Holy wow. I did not see Man From Reno coming. This thing is sneaky good.
And what makes it so good is how co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman, along with writer/director Dave Boyle, take elements of several styles of crime storytelling, strip those elements of all cliché, and reconstruct them into a mystery that comforts you with its surface familiarity and then seizes you with its deep intensity.
The most obvious trope the film turns on its head is that of professional crime author by day/amateur crime solver by night, but Aki Akahori is no Jessica Fletcher, and that’s a good thing. Aki is a troubled soul with a secret that has haunted her to the point of desperate measures, but stripped of all melodrama. Fujitani plays Aki with delicately unsure measure – a woman weary of success yet awkward in anonymity. As for her sleuthing skills, she’s better left to writing fiction than solving fact, another refreshing take on the character type.
The “small-town sheriff taking on a case the likes of which he’s never seen but one he just might be smart enough to figure out” device is another crime fiction standard Boyle and Co. do fine things with. Del Moral is unburdened by stereotypes that have come before him; he is neither down-home folksy nor backwoods Sherlock, nor is he that world-weary cynic who saw enough of the big city to relocate to a simpler life in the twilight of his career. He’s a sheriff doing his job, following leads and putting things together, with enough complexity of character to introduce potential conflict in the investigation. Serna’s matter-of-factness with the character is so genuine it’s refreshing, like he’s hitting a reset button on something we’ve seen too many quirky versions of.
Reno also borrows elements from film noir (although it isn’t neo-noir, which is perfectly fine too), stranger-in-a-strange-land tales, a hint of South Korean crime thrillers, and it even offers everything from a juicy red herring to a friend for Aki who knows her secret AND has some smarts to help her out (but not BAIL her out).
Oh, and the last 30 minutes of film are glorious; the story accelerates in a frenzy of unraveling revelations, yet continues to toss in additional mystery and doubt that it still finds time to address while the clock winds down. As for the end, it is deliciously satisfying.
The real star of the film, though, is Boyle. His filmmaking instincts are sensational. Every scene is so well-blocked and every shot shot so well-considered, plus he isn’t afraid of big, sumptuous shots in his intimate thriller, and he treats the viewer like an intelligent adult by occasionally ending a scene a few beats early for the sake of artistic impact, but never at the expense of story. Couple this this with gorgeous lensing from cinematographer Richard Wong, and you have something that is as beautiful to look at as it is satisfying to consume.
I’ve watched Man From Reno twice now, and when it hits home video (please?), it will find a spot on my (top) shelf next to other modern crime classics, both domestic and foreign, like The Usual Suspects and I Saw the Devil. It is a glossy retro mystery thriller that only hints at cliché and then reminds you, scene after scene, how much better it is than that. The slow-burn of the film’s first two acts ignites in the third with a sublime ending worthy of SoKo cinema, and one that Hollywood should take note of.