Searching January 14, 2019
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
he draw of Searching (2018), a thriller co-produced by Timur Bekmambetov, who backed 2015’s stylistically similar teen-horror tale Unfriended, is that it exclusively takes place on phone and computer screens. It stars John Cho as David, a 40-something-year-old widower, and Michelle La as Margot, his 15-year-old daughter. Since the tragic death of David’s wife and Margot’s mother, Pamela (Sarah Sohn) — a
blow we indirectly experience by thumbing through emails, home videos, and vlogs before the movie’s present-day plot sets in — the father-daughter relationship has grown distant. They rarely talk, unwisely believing that it is space, not dialogue, that the other person needs.
Much of Searching rides on the age-old crime-thriller banality that one of the main characters is not who they seem. Early in the movie, David and Margot FaceTime, and she explains that she won’t be home until a little after midnight. She's at a friend’s house, where she'll be tirelessly preparing for an upcoming AP biology exam. But she never returns. This leads, after David reports her missing, to a number of unsettling discoveries: that Margot has not been attending her private piano lessons for the last six months, and has been depositing the allotted money to her bank account; that no one at her school really knows her; that she has given a large sum of money to a since-deleted Venmo account; and that she has been confabbing with some seamy characters, among other things. David is assisted by Rosemary (Debra Messing), a reputable detective who has been assigned to the case, but we come to learn that it is our hero, a great investigative dilettante, who'll be most vital to getting to the bottom of his daughter’s disappearance, which seems to either be a kidnapping or a running-away.
Searching takes place over the course of several days, and, as mentioned earlier, is visually made up of things like iMessage conversations, FaceTime calls, local news check-ins, surveillance videos, and more. The approach is innovative and occasionally electric; I was especially thrilled by the stretches during which David, ever-desperate, hacks into his daughter’s various social media accounts, steadily unsure of and anxious about what he’ll find out from clicking on this link, watching this video.
Yet the screen-only approach is not wholly imperative or that beneficial to the plot. Because the movie predominantly centers around presentation and narrative, character development is jettisoned, and, if background information is provided, it tends to be platitudinous and unrevealing. Since the feature is so snaky in its storytelling, and so creatively straightforward, it comes across as a particularly good crime novel churned out, in no time, by a Harlan Coben type — which is not entirely a bad thing when we’re talking about escapism. I was rapt in the plot, and the red herrings and final plot twist are ably handled by screenwriters Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian.
But like other gimmicky thrillers to come out in 2018, from John Krasinski’s muzzy A Quiet Place to Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-centric Unsane, both of which I similarly enjoyed, the contrivance feels like a cover for the reality that, without the foundational visual stunt, there would be little reason to flock to the movie. Standout thrillers stand out because, without the genre-defining elements, and without the litany of jolts, it could still make for a plenty-spellbinding drama. Take away Searching’s optic thrills and the disappearance at its center and you aren’t left with much that hasn't been done already. B