There’s a light touch to much of Dave Boyle’s modern-noir Man from Reno, eschewing the usual aesthetic trappings of the genre, lulling the viewer into a false sense of comfort before inevitably pulling the rug out from under. The movie opens in the fog and climaxes on a sunny dock, rendering the so-called ambience of film-noir moot. The notion here that a noir doesn’t have to be set in run down alleys and shadowy high-contrast rooms and smoky bars to suggest something corrupt and malicious; a sunny dock and a warmly-lit hotel-room hold just as much, if not more, sinister intent. There’s something downright transgressive about using San Francisco in such a manner, the city that gave birth to the quintessential noirs The Lady From Shanghai & The Maltese Falcon now repurposed as their aesthetic counterpart.
Two entwining storylines compete for attention. In the first, a successful Japanese mystery novelist Aki (an exceptional Ayako Fujitani) flees to San Fran as a means to escape the drudgery of her increasingly ‘hacky’ work. Once in the city, she winds up in bed with a mysterious man – who disappears the morning after, leaving his suitcase by the bedside. The allure of an actual real-life mystery proves too much for the novelist to resist and soon thereafter she’s following up leads and in turn drawing the wayward attention of some unsavory folks.
In the second storyline, an aging small-town sheriff (Pepe Serna) accidentally runs a man over with his cruiser. The next morning when the sheriff goes to check up on the injured party at the hospital, he is nowhere to be found. There are allusions to some past incompetence on the sheriff’s part, the missing man providing the old-timer with one last shot at redemption, a case to be cracked and filed away complete. Of course the run-over disappearing man and Aki’s absentee lover are connected in ways not immediately perceptible and part of the joy (and frustration – as it takes quite a while) is seeing how these two storylines interlock.
Every single archetype of the noir is repurposed here (perhaps too cleverly at times). The seedy detective’s office – now morphed into the aforementioned hotel room, the femme fatale – a mysterious man, the grizzled detective – a depressed female novelist… The effect though doesn’t register as post-modern deconstruction but more so suggests a certain sense of play-acting, the self-reflexive thought that all these characters are aware (and delighted) to be part of a honest-to-goodness mystery — much perhaps to their own detriment.
This sense of play lends the first two-thirds of the picture a comedic backbone, nicely contrasting with the mostly super-serious noir genre. See no further than the eventual reveal of the picture’s ‘McGuffin’: somehow even more ridiculous than a falcon statuette or an airplane engine – which is exactly the point. Man from Reno is committed to revealing the absurdities of noir to be just that – absurd. This may be why the sheriff-centric plotline doesn’t gel with the rest of the picture. The good-natured-aging-sheriff-getting-one-last-stab-at-a-case is a trope in and of itself. The prototypical plotline becomes particularly noticeable in relation to all the other unorthodox risks Man from Reno takes. It gets to the point that whenever the story cuts away from Aki to the sheriff, you can’t help but feel a little antsy to just get back to the more interesting story thread.
Towards the end of Man From Reno, one character asks another, “How does it all end?” – as if their life a novel/film to be skipped over to the last page/reel. The offhand remark gets at the tragic undercurrent of the picture – the characters so caught up in their own self-aggrandizing ‘role’ in a mystery that they fail to see the larger picture or remember that most film noirs don’t end particularly well in the first place. Throughout the film, Boyle shoots his leads in wide shots, making their characters tiny in the frame, marking them at the mercy of a world, situation, plot far out of their reach and/or understanding. Man From Reno may play around with aesthetics of noir – but deep down its every bit as nihilistic as the standard-bearers of the genre.
Man From Reno isn’t always successful (the pacing’s a little off for one) but what it may lack at times in execution, it more than makes up for in sheer ambition and moxie. It’s a more than worthy entry into the San Fran noirs, every bit the equal of the movies it attempts to tear down.