In 'Searching,' Gimmick Doesn't Have to be a 4-Letter Word
To understand Searching, you must first understand Aneesh Chaganty. He's only 27 years old and has never directed a film before. Yet nobody was as qualified to make this all-on-a-computer-screen thriller than him. Chaganty cut his teeth working for a tech firm, not a traditional Hollywood studio. His entire professional career has been at Google, where he made some of their best and most memorable commercials. Remember this heart-warming Google Glass ad? (better question, do you remember Google Glass?) To be clear, the fact that the entire movie takes place on computer and television screens is most definitely a gimmick. It's cheap. And it's not even totally original, as Unfriended: Dark Web already did it this year. But whereas Unfriended literally took place on one computer screen in real time, a full commitment to the bit, Chaganty takes more liberties. The "camera," more appropriately the screen capture, moves around. It cuts. It zooms in. There's a really neat trick where the sound builds up and then drops off as a camera cuts to a new "scene," effectively signaling a time shift. The script, which he also co-wrote, is sort of a marvel. There's just less spoken words than in most movies, and significantly less dialogue, as a lot of time is spent using iMessenger and looking at pictures and videos stored on the computers. The fact that it flows as well as it does and remains engaging throughout is pretty impressive. Point being, this Chaganty guy knows what he's doing. If I could buy stock in his filmmaking future, I'd sell the car (that I don't have) and mortgage the house (that I also don't have) to invest in this guy. He's going to have a long and successful career. It's pretty obvious that the producers of this movie were hoping to capitalize on the recent boom in popular true crime documentaries, riding the wave of shows like The Staircase and Making of a Murderer. The general movie-going audience has become literate in the language of investigation through media, stitching together TV news clippings and hidden photos online to solve mysteries. But a fictional version of one of these mysteries gets somewhat lost in translation. It's hard to trick yourself into believing the stakes are as high as they would be in a real life version where the events really happened, and the unlimited access that a fictional narrative boasts over a reported documentary doesn't make up for this lessened unpredictability. I also couldn't help but notice the deficiencies of these screen capture movies when compared to their traditional counterparts. There's just a general lack of immersion. We're used to staring at computer screens all day, but we normally do so only passively. We've got the TV on in the background, or we're checking our phone periodically. Too often when we're staring at a computer screen, it only grabs a fraction of our attention. By no fault of the filmmaker, the action just doesn't seem as important. In the best movies, shot traditionally, you become so engrossed in the world of the film that you forget about things like camera work and dialogue and set design. You go along with the decisions of the characters without really questioning them. That's impossible to do when you're looking a computer screen, which you're so used to controlling. It's so hard to separate yourself from the tabs and browsers that you see pulled up, and those that aren't, and what you would be doing if you had your hands on the keyboard. All of that said, screen capture is a new and clever concept...err gimmick, and if you've never seen a movie produced in this way you should. It's a totally different experience. I'm sure there will be more movies in this style to come, but for now, the standard has been set by Aneesh Chaganty and Searching.
Rear Window (1954)
To compare Searching to Rear Window is like comparing Devon Booker to Michael Jordan. They're both trying to do the same thing, play shooting guard in the NBA, but one is young and learning and the other is the greatest of all time. There's a reason why we call Alfred Hitchcock the master of suspense, the father of the modern thriller, so I'm not trying to put the two on equal playing fields. However, there's a similar concept. A lonely man observes people he doesn't really know, trying to solve a crime. In Rear Window, that lonely man just so happens to not have the internet, so when he's cooped up in his room with a broken leg he stairs out his window and into the windows and lives of his neighbors. He too is a passive participant in the action. But don't get fooled into thinking this movie is boring. The genius of it is the way the tension slowly builds, greater and greater until it reaches in an incredible climax.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Yes, there's a missing girl in both, but that's pretty much where the similarities end between Searching and Gone Baby Gone. This movie is DARK, both thematically and literally, and there is a severe lack of redeeming characters to root for here. But each one is magnetic, thanks to an unbelievable cast that includes Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Michael Kenneth Williams and on and on and on. For those that forget, this was the feature debut of Ben Affleck as a director, sending him on a path that would lead to The Town and eventually an Oscar win for Argo before his recent...failures. The best part about this movie is also the best complement you can give to any mystery thriller: it's excellent at when and how it reveals information. Viewers are kept in the dark (again, metaphorically and quite literally) until puzzle pieces are slowly revealed and the full picture can be seen. It's a very good movie.