Tom Jolliffe looks at 10 essential films about the search for a missing person…
There are a number of sub-genres in the thriller and drama genre which I love. One such type, is the missing person film. A film which is driven by the search for the missing person(s). There have been many great films over the years, and plenty of twists on the formula too. We’ve even seen these tales from different perspectives, where we, as audience discover the outcome of the missing person (more on that later), but the protagonist is blissfully unaware of their fate (whether they’re already dead, or indeed have orchestrated their disappearance). So whether the tale ends with salvation, a grim fate, or a teasing ambiguity, here are 10 great missing person films:
There were two major reasons why the recent indie hit Searching was a great piece of work. For one, it gave a platform for John Cho to shine as a leading man in a time where actors of Asian descent are finally starting to see some doors open. Cho has been around the block for a couple of decades now, and despite getting a headline role in a successful comedy franchise as the titular Harold (teaming with his buddy Kumar), hasn’t been front and center as much as his talent deserves. Searching gave him that platform. Another nice touch was the creative choice in playing the film entirely from a screen’s eye view, whether it was from phone, CCTV, webcam and more. We only ever see characters through a physical source, as Cho searches systematically for his missing daughter. The pacing is great and there’s an increasingly discomforting sense that the search might be fruitless, or grim. Plenty of twists along the way, whilst the film never strains logic too much.
This great thriller by George Sluizer offers an interesting twist on the missing person genre. A young couple stop at a service station whilst driving across France. The place is bustling with people and the woman (Johanna ter Steege) disappears. Rex (Gene Bervoets) searches in vain, with little help from the local police. Step forward three years, he’s now in a new relationship but the spectre of his ex and her fate haunts him and the new relationship. The flip in the tale here is that whilst we see Rex still obsessively trying to keep the case going, we also see things from the perspective of family man Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). It becomes clear Lemorne is fascinated with the idea of abducting women, and as we see him perfecting his techniques and stalking his abduction spots, we realise he was indeed responsible. He sends letters to Rex, wanting to meet and promising to give him ‘closure.’ Rex’s obsession and curiosity combine and the meeting is inevitable, it then twists into an odd road movie as the two flirt around the key question…What happened to Saskia? The final sequences are brilliant, leaving an indelible mark on the viewer.
Anna and her boyfriend Sandro, along with her friend Claudia, are on a tranquil boat trip pitching up on a small island made up of nothing but rocks. Anna disappears. What viewers might expect to evolve into a kind of mystery thriller, becomes something else entirely. A fruitless, if half-hearted search over the island and local areas turns into an ill-timed romance. Soon the fate of Anna becomes secondary to the burgeoning romance, that will ultimately be doomed by deep seeded guilt. There’s a bluntness to the end that mirrors that decidedly unromantic reality of most missing person cases like this. There’s no Hollywood resolution as the film retains ambiguity. The cast are great and Michelangelo Antonioni gets the best out of one of his muses, Monica Vitti (who is entirely sublime). It’s a beautifully shot film, looking stunning in black and white, particularly through its pristine Criterion release.
Just what happened to Hae-Mi? That’s the burning question that becomes central to the film’s second half. Lee Chang-dong’s film was certainly greeted with exceptional reviews but even still, it might just be underestimated. It requires fermentation. It needs a few more years to continue to mature and repeat viewings to pick apart the nuance of the films script. It begins as a reconnection/romance between two old school friends (Jong-su, and the former neighbour, Hae-mi who he picked on). Then it becomes a strange love triangle, before Hae-Mi disappears. Chang-dong loads the film with suggestion. Everything comes back to Hae-mi’s off cuff demonstration of what she learned in mime class. How we convince ourselves of something that isn’t there. Ultimately, whether it’s Boil the cat, little/great hunger, boxes of trinkets, greenhouses, or background into Hae-Mi’s mental state (and debts), we see everything through Jong-su’s point of view and are manipulated into his distorted thinking (focused on the deliberately playful Ben who says things for effect which may or may not have truth in them). Watch, repeat and mull. There’s so much to get from Burning which lingers long in your mind after the credits have rolled. Such is the ambiguity too, there’s no singular theory you are restricted to.
Deemed something of a lesser Scorsese joint, Shutter Island has slowly accrued a more considered following in the years since its release. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) head to an Island asylum to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient. Teddy is clearly haunted by tragic past events. The increasing intrigue is compounded by a storm as their search continues. It becomes a psychological thriller, where the motives of the Asylum staff becomes unclear, and Daniels doesn’t know who to trust. Scorsese ramps up his style and revels in B picture material, whilst DiCaprio delivers an exceptional performance, well aided by a stellar cast. The finale is pure pulp fiction, but so brilliantly realised.
There’s something kind of shlocky about Gone Girl. It plays out like a B movie, something not alien to David Fincher. Of Fincher’s ‘lighter’ fare, which substitutes complexity for simple thrills, this remains the best of the bunch (over The Game and Panic Room say). It’s a big event movie with a layer of trashiness over it, which is pulled off with the kind of assured aplomb that only Scorsese could deliver in genres like this (see Cape Fear). Histrionic, ridiculous, but oh so gripping, Gone Girl even overcomes its unfathomably long run time, and allows Rosamund Pike to deliver a show stopping performance.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
It’s a close call between original and remake, but the original is the one for me. For one, the whole Nordic vibe is most certainly more at home with its Swedish cast. In fairness Fincher captured that Nordic essence beautifully and his film has a number of merits (not least Rooney Mara as Lisbeth and Stellan Skarsgaard in fine villainous form). Something of a long retrospective missing persons hunt, a renowned investigative journalist (Michael Nyqvist) is sent to try and uncover the mystery of a young woman who disappeared decades ago. Among this he encounters the troubled, recent parolee, Lisbeth (a young hacker) who is being sexually exploited by her parole officer. She ends up involved in the search. It’s a gripping tale of long standing familial drama and deception, with engaging performances and masses of cold, stark atmosphere. As Lisbeth, Noomi Rapace is still the definitive version. She’s absolutely mesmerising.
Denis Villeneuve truly announced himself to Hollywood with this stellar and unforgettable crime thriller. The stunning visuals and exceptional performances combine with Denis’ gripping direction and the result is thrilling. Hugh Jackman in particular gives a career best performance as the father searching for his missing daughter. The film becomes increasingly dark as he becomes convinced about who the guilty party is, and driven to taking the kind of action the police can’t. Jake Gyllenhaal as the determined cop hamstrung by the rules, is also superb. Prisoners is a great example of nail-biting tension.
A P.I (Donald Sutherland) is hired to find an old friend who has gone missing. He begins his investigation, with very little to go on, bar the identity of a prostitute thought to be the last person to see the missing person alive. So begins a film with a richly complex female protagonist, that arcs into an unlikely romance/kinship between Sutherland and Jane Fonda. All beautifully shot and tightly directed by Alan J. Pakula, it slowly evolves into conspiracy and a tension filled finale. Klute was one of the films to kick off a good run of great 70’s paranoia films, and it remains one of the best.
The Lady Vanishes
Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to great thrillers. He covered mysterious disappearance a few times (and indeed reappearance, in Vertigo). Psycho in fact offered an elaborate tale of disappearance that reinvented the genre. Going right back though, to an era of simple plots done exceptionally well, we have The Lady Vanishes. It’s a great concept, with a lady seemingly disappearing from a moving train. Hitchcock by this point had already mastered mystique and intrigue and the film still holds up very well.
Also worthwhile: Frantic, Breakdown, Gone Baby Gone, And Soon The Darkness, and Rear Window.
What is your favourite missing person film? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.