Thriller Offers Surprising Depth of Emotion Along with Its Twists and Turns
Give me characters I can actually care about. I’ve written variations on those words dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the years. Thriller after thriller offers twists and turns and a variety of plot machinations, but more often than not the audience doesn’t really care because it has no emotional investment in the outcome. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a chess game. Move the pieces around in increasingly clever ways, but in the end, they’re just pieces on a game board.
So color me surprised when I found myself truly hoping that David Kim (John Cho) would find his missing daughter, Margot (Michelle La) by the end of Searching, the feature directorial debut from writer/director Aneesh Chaganty. David is living every parent’s worst nightmare: his daughter heads off to school one day and falls off the grid entirely. No calls. No texts. No emails. She’s simply gone. David convinces himself that it’s a scheduling error or some kind of misunderstanding, but in our high-tech age, it’s well-nigh impossible to disappear by accident. So slowly, but surely, the unthinkable morphs into the most likely option.
Much has been made of the manner in which Searching is told. The central conceit of the film is that the narrative unfolds solely on laptops, tablets and other types of devices. Text bubbles and emails fill the big screen along with FaceTime conversations, YouTube videos and the like. When a detective is assigned to your daughter’s disappearance, what do you do? Google her, obviously, instantly providing the audience with some of her backstory.
During the first fifteen minutes of the film, the approach can seem gimmicky, and if you’re a nit-picker, you will undoubtedly find some inconsistencies or lapses in virtual logic, but eventually the means of telling the story gives way to a compelling narrative. Why does the structure of the film become so transparent after initially being so obtrusive? Because we live a large portion of our lives on devices with events unfolding in multiple windows, and our brains adapt quickly to a film that delivers its content in such a familiar way.
And the audience’s knowledge of internet culture is exploited by some of the best red herrings and plot twists in the film. You will be certain you know where this thriller is headed, and you will either be completely wrong or at least partially incorrect. Aneesh Chaganty is counting on us to use our online savvy to deceive ourselves every bit as much as he is misleading us with his clever script. If the ending seems a little too convenient, a little too “neat”, we can forgive him because the journey itself is satisfying even if the destination is a bit obvious.
What places Searching a cut above the average thrillers filling the multiplex every weekend is the resonance of the relationship between David and Margot. The prologue that unfolds during the credits sets the emotional stage for the film and fills the audience in on the loss that David and Margot have suffered better than any tearful monologue ever could. John Cho’s performance anchors the film. He wordlessly transitions from confusion to surprise to fear and frustration. It’s a largely solo flight that requires the actor to stare into the camera lens and treat blank screens like they are his co-stars. By the end of the film, you’ll feel as emotionally drained as David Kim.
And that’s a good thing.