Visually, Man From Reno looks like the year’s best mystery thriller. Much of it is set in San Francisco, that twisty, foggy city by the sea that has housed the works of Raymond Chandler and Alfred Hitchcock. Several sequences within Dave Boyle’s film have the olive green tinted lighting of a David Fincher flick, and that director’s fascination with laying out the details of a dense investigation is also replicated here.
Boyle’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with Joel Clark and Michael Lerman, pays tribute to the wit and panache of classic sleuths. Both of the film’s detective protagonists are conventional in the classical way: one is a sly, intelligent woman trying to flee her past, the other an old time sheriff of a small town with a creased face and fatigued voice.
Unfortunately, Boyle’s beautifully lensed pastiche is less the sum of its parts, even if the wealth of mystery elements and tenets should make the genre’s fans salivate. Man From Reno is a mystery made by people who love mysteries on the page and the screen. Even if not all the threads come together seamlessly and some mired exposition dilutes the thrills in the third act, there are enough aspects to admire to give the film a recommendation – especially for people who dig mysteries as much as Man From Reno’s creators.
One tenet of the genre featured in the film is two separate stories coming together. The first focuses on small town sheriff Paul Del Moral, played by character actor Pepe Serna. Cautiously driving down the highway through a foggy night, Paul accidentally hits a man. The injured man goes to the hospital, but vanishes from his room the next – only to be found dead in a marsh a few days later. The name of the deceased man: Akira Suzuki.
The second strand deals with a famous Japanese mystery novelist, Aki (Ayako Fujitani). Burned out from the demands of fame, Aki hops on a plane to San Francisco to lay low in a country where she is an unknown and get some writing done. While staying in a posh hotel, Aki meets a good-looking, flirtatious man (Kazuki Kitamura, from The Raid 2) and begins to fall for him. Just like the man in the county hospital from the other story, Aki’s lover disappears. The only remaining clues are a suitcase with various items and the man’s name – Akira Suzuki.
Boyle patiently doles out the story twists, so that Paul and Aki do not cross paths until the story’s midway point. (It is not much of a surprise that the two stories entangle.) Both characters are welcome for how they reference traditional tropes of detective fiction, although neither Aki (who gets more screen time) nor Paul transcend the genre trappings.
She uses her knowledge of crafty detective plotting to steer her investigation in various directions, but the details of her old life of fame are only teased. It is a tad unconvincing when she falls so easily under the sway of her romantic pursuer, considering her icy tone and glassy stare throughout Man From Reno. Fujitani, the daughter of actor Steven Seagal, is a terrific lead, charming and somewhat ambiguous to the point that we often wonder what she is thinking about. In a few suspenseful moments at the door of Aki’s hotel room, we watch her peer through the peephole at the men knocking on her door, trying to imagine their motivations and how they are caught up in the crime.
The core strain in the film comes from a plot that would work better in a pulpy page-turner – one that allows the reader to flip back to earlier points for reference and clarity – being turned into a story with a rich visual palette. Regardless, there are various stylistic flourishes, beyond the back-and-forth of the sleek, noirish dialogue. A scene where Paul discusses the details of the crime with his daughter is in a store filled with ticking clocks. Miscellaneous items – turtles, a matchbox, an ear of lettuce – become tantalizing clues, MacGuffins and/or red herrings. Man From Reno is easily one of the most visually striking films ever made to have an extensive part of its end credits thank its Kickstarter backers. Cinematographer Richard Wong’s compositions are both sumptuous and unnerving, often focused on the isolated protagonists surrounded by empty streets, green fields or stormy grey seas.
Those overjoyed when they read a crackling good mystery will find much to enjoy in Man From Reno – not surprising considering the main character is a noted author of the genre. However, despite a controlled narrative and heavy atmosphere for the first two-thirds, the last 30 minutes of the film are rushed through, with extraneous exposition that could have been more effective shown instead of told. Even though the macabre final scenes depart from the genre’s conventions, a few too many questions remain.
Man From Reno charms with smart direction and how it worships the look and feel of a crackling good mystery, even if its endgame doesn’t entirely satisfy.