It’s time for me to confess something: For the last few months whenever I just need to zone out I’ve found myself lulled into the genteel murder mysteries of Midsomer Murders, of which every episode is currently on Netflix. After two dozen episodes (each about 100 minutes long) I’ve got the formula down pat: there will be murders, it will involve some scuttlebutt that will scandalize the small rural communities where the murders happen, there will be numerous false suspects and red herrings, and everybody is going to be so incredibly English about the whole affair. It is hardly the best thing I’ve ever watched, but there is comfort in the certainty of its formula.
I mention this because for I found myself thinking about Midsomer Murders in two very different movies I caught the other night: Searching and The Little Stranger. Both movies couldn’t be more different in theme and tone, and yet in their own way they reminded me of both the strengths and weaknesses of Midsomer Murders which were reflected in these two pretty good, but flawed movies.
SEARCHING (2018) dir. Aneesh Chaganty
It is impossible to talke about Searching without talking about the film’s unique gimmick: The story is told exclusively through the use of phone and computer screens. Producer Timur Bekmambetov has used this narrative device before in 2014’s Unfriended, but this time around it seems that he, and the filmmakers, have learned how best to utilize the unique pull of this format while minimizing the inherent weaknesses of its central conceit.
Searching narrows in on the online life of David Kim (John Cho), a widower who is trying to raise his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) when one day his – and every parents’ – worst fear becomes realized: In the middle of the night, while he is asleep he misses a bunch of calls from Margot and she doesn’t come home the next day. At first his paranoia is tempered by a refusal to panic. He sends a bunch of texts to her and leaves a few voicemails, and when she doesn’t answer he moves on to trying to get ahold of her friends to see where she might be. It is only on the second day, when it becomes obvious that no one knows where she is that he allows his panic to take hold and reports her missing. Soon he is joined by Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) and together they undertake the frantic chase of trying to figure out what happened to Margot before things go horribly wrong.
Rosemary charges David with combing through Margot’s life to try and figure out what might have happened to her. And so, just like in Hitchcock’s Rear Window David is invited to become a voyeur in his daughter’s life – and by extension so are we. He gets ahold of Margot’s laptop (troublingly left behind) and inevitably begins to learn that there is a deep secret life that Margot lived that he was completely not privy to. People he thought were her friends turn out to be mere acquaintances, her surface-level online projection of the model student and model daughter starts crumbling the deeper David dives. And as the ground keeps shifting under his feet, we join David in agonizing over the meaning of innocuous text conversations, poring over random Instagram comments, and going down numerous internet rabbit trails trying to figure out what happened to Margot and who, if anybody, could be out to hurt her. But each nugget of information does not provide David any more clarity and instead spends him spiralling further and further as he finds himself projecting the worst and facing the very real possibility that perhaps he never knew his daughter at all.
But of course it is not just what David uncovers that is compelling, it is how he does it that is interesting. As each potential nugget of information comes in we see him filling out an ever-growing Excel spreadsheet – documenting his discoveries in real-time. His browser ends up with a plethora of tabs opened as he dives deeper and deeper to discovering the truth. His desktop which is meticulously clean at the beginning of the movie becomes increasingly cluttered with icons as he saves every bit of relevant information that he finds. Unlike many movies that purport to be set in modern times, David actually uses the technology available to us in ways that we would actually use them which makes his increasing desperation as he exhausts more and more options all the more frightening for us.
Undoubtedly the biggest improvement this movie has over Unfriended is in the cast. John Cho perfectly inhabits his role as a father who sort of understands technology, but is still somewhat awkward in that world. He navigates websites his daughter frequents in confusion both in terms of these sites’ purpose and also in function which provides some of the few humorous moments of this drama. As his is the POV we inhabit, he also perfectly portrays that mental filter we all try to employ when being online. He frequently types out much rawer and harsher messages, and then quickly deletes it for a more measured sentence. But then, like most of us, there are moments when he lets his true feelings slip leading to typically socially disastrous situations. Debra Messing meanwhile ably plays the detective assigned to his case and navigates the tricky task of keeping David’s hopes up while reining him in. She provides a sounding board for David, and more importantly keeps the narrative flowing in moments where the limitations of the medium are apparent.
There are however some significant flaws in the movie, and this is where the movie reminded me of the Midsomer Murders. While red herrings are an inherent part of the mystery genre, there are a lot of red herrings in this movie. By the time we reached the third or fourth dead end, I found myself playing the same game I play with the Midsomer Murders of pre-guessing how irrelevant the next piece of information was going to be for the case – an exercise that took me out of the movie. There are also several segments in which the use of breaking news reports to continue the narrative rang as false because there were some clear journalistic breaches in how these newsreels were presented and it was clear that these segments were being used as exposition for the narrative. In a movie that works so hard to immerse us in an online world we are intimately familiar with, these moments again made me realize I was very obviously watching a movie, taking me out of the experience. And finally, the third act suffers from trying to too-neatly tie a bow to all the proceedings. The twist that comes, when it inevitably comes, is believable and gasp inducing; it does not seem like a cheap deus ex machina, as a careful examination of the clues dropped throughout the movie shows that the truth was there all along. However there is a desperate need to over-explain how this twist is not a cheap pulling-the-rug out from under us, as the perpetrator engages in an extensive monologue explaining exactly what was done and why. It’s like the filmmakers didn’t trust that the audience would come to the same conclusion on their own, which is a shame because they had clearly treated us like adults up to that point.
Still, Searching remains an entertaining thrill ride, and a surprising one at that. By confining the action to the screen, director Aneesh Chaganty paradoxically opens up a completely new way of telling a story, turning our everyday actions like Google searches, password recoveries, and even copy-and-paste into a high-tension investigation of the highest stakes. I doubt repeat viewings will be as interesting once the big reveal is known, but Chaganty had me hooked the first-time through.
THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018) dir. Lenny Abrahamson
Before The Little Stranger started, as I sat alone in the theatre watching the previews, I realized that something was terribly off about how this movie was being marketed. I was treated, in rapid succession, to previews of The Nun, Halloween, and Venom – three blockbuster features that wear their horror credentials proud on their sleeves, stuffing their previews with as many jump scares as possibly to drum up excitement for horror afficianados. Having read Sarah Waters novel, it occured to me that one of two things had happened in adapting The Little Stranger: either Lenny Abrahamson had sold out and turned the atmospheric novel into a out-and-out horror film, or the film distributors didn’t know how to market what they had. Thankfully from a film quality standard, the latter is true even if it ensures that this movie will be (and by the time this review comes out probably has been) buried.
Where Searching breaks new storytelling ground in film, The Little Stranger is altogether old-fashioned in how its narrative unfolds. Domhnall Gleeson plays Dr. Faraday, a travelling country doctor who finds himself called to treat a maid in Hundreds Hall – a crumbling manor that his mother had once worked at as a maid. While the maid’s problems turn out to be mostly in her head due to being spooked out by the hollowed out manor, it provides Faraday the chance to relive one of his fantasies of living in such a place. He quickly enamours himself to the Ayres family who lives in the manor, made up of the cold and distant matriarch Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), the maimed and shell-shocked oldest brother Roderick (Will Poulter) who is forced to take care of the family estate but finds himself drowning in the responsibilities, and Caroline (Ruth Wilson) the sister who is forced to take care of her brother and unconsciously britles at her upbringing.
Naturally, it is Faraday and Caroline’s relationship that gets the most attention, and thankfully so. While there is a haunting of the traditional ghostly kind in in this movie, it is really a metaphorical haunting that is at the heart of the movie. Faraday and Caroline meet each other during a particular tumultous time in English history, when the end of World War II also brought with it the end of many aristocratic families with manors such as Hundreds Hall. The crumbling of the old upstairs/downstairs aristocratic system happens as a new world order of a new working and middle class rises up to take its place. Farraday is interesting in that he a lower-class citizen who has benefited from this new world order of upward mobility, but finds himself wanting to see Hundreds Hall, and the way of life that propped it up, continue to thrive. Meanwhile Caroline is the aristocrat who would like nothing better than to embrace the sweeping changes, but cannot due to her role in the older aristocratic system. This dynamic is the most intriguing part of the book – and it is to the movie’s credit that their relationship is similarly compelling onscreen thanks to Gleeson and Wilson’s performances.
It is the literal haunting aspect of this film that falls flat however. In the original novel the haunting of Hundreds Hall is eerie and at times terrifying due to the fact that we see all the events through the lens of Dr. Farraday. His journey from being a highly skeptical man of science who refuses to believe any hint of a supernatural to being someone who has all his preconceived beliefs chipped away until he is forced to face the horror of what is plainly in front of him is compelling, unnerving, and frightening when presented in prose. But in film, this whole dynamic of the narrative is obscured and without that dynamic what we are left with is a run-of-the-mill haunted house movie that is derivative of every other haunted house movie you’ve seen in the last forty years.
However, despite how tame the haunted house aspect of this story is, it is still serviceable as a movie. The genteel dignity with which all of this is carried out is reminiscent of, as I mentioned at the top, the Midsomer Murders again as the nature of the mystery is handled with an urgency befitting the English countryside. The production values of this movie are top notch, and it is a pleasant jaunt for anyone who loves a good old-fashioned and slightly stodgy British Drama. It is a pity that the distributors didn’t lean into that aspect of the story for its marketing. A scare-a-minute horror movie this is decidedly not but fans of the book should be fairly satisfied, even if I am undoubtedly going to forget about this movie’s existence in a year’s time.