UK Release Date: 31st August 2018
Runtime: 102 minutes
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Writer: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee
Synopsis: A desperate father delves into the internet browser of his missing daughter’s laptop to hunt for clues as to her whereabouts by trying to investigate her online life.
Under the watchful eye of Russian producer Timur Bekmambetov, the notion of movies that play out entirely on computer screens has become a genre of its own. Whether it’s the two Blumhouse Unfriended movies or Bekmambetov’s own horror Profile, the ‘screen life’ world has essentially become its own universe. There are references both to Bekmambetov himself and to the characters of Unfriended in thriller Searching, in which former Google employee Aneesh Chaganty drags the computer screen idea out of horror and into the world of a genuinely engrossing mystery full of twists and turns.
That mystery centres around missing girl Margot Kim (Michelle La) and is told through the eyes of her father David (John Cho). When she fails to return from a night with her study group, David alerts the cops and, with the aid of detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), begins to look into the people Margot interacted with on social media. He soon digs deeper by accessing her laptop and delving further into the websites she visited and the people she contacted.
The first thing to note about Searching is that it’s the most web-literate of these movies. Chaganty’s Google career has clearly set him in good stead and the first 10 minutes or so works as a montage of nostalgia, beginning with the classic green hills of the Windows XP default desktop and culminating in a genuinely heart-breaking revelation – like the opening of Up for the Instagram generation. Anyone who grew up online in the noughties will very much enjoy the parade of references, including reaction videos to scary face memes and the flash game site Addicting Games making an appearance.
For the most part, this is a rare example of a genre movie governed by logic. Cho excels as the everyman father and the movie does a very solid job of portraying him as a savvy, competent person capable of just about holding himself together, even as the investigation becomes increasingly fraught. His every move is entirely logical, from the use of reverse image searches to trawling through web history to discover online video casting sites. All of these different services are used to deepen the mystery and heighten the sense of foreboding. Chaganty has crafted a film in which even the rhythmic movement of an animated screensaver becomes a device to boost the tension.
In stark contrast to Unfriended‘s strict adherence to its presentation of events entirely within a single computer screen, Searching is a more freewheeling affair. Chaganty’s camera is able to move with more visual dynamism, as well as chopping and changing between multiple screens in order to handle the more wide-ranging nature of the story. It’s in these moments that Searching occasionally over-stretches itself, relying a little too heavily on news reports to deliver hefty dumps of plot exposition. The movie is on far safer ground when half of the screen shows us David’s panicked face as he trawls through the computer in search of revelations, essentially delivering the thrill of a Facebook stalk combined with the earth-shaking twists of a Netflix true crime saga.
There’s also a side offering of social commentary, delivered perhaps a little too briefly in one scene in which David flicks through the Twitter hashtag being used to discuss the investigation. It’s littered with messages of intolerance towards him, speculation he might have perpetrated the crime himself and cruel memes about his daughter. This hits hard, but not as hard as the fake online sincerity depicted in YouTube videos and Facebook posts from people who, just a few days before, had told David they barely knew Margot.
Searching is an elegant and compelling mystery thriller that makes the most of its potentially restrictive gimmick to produce something that’s as gripping as a thriller movie can get. It sees the neophyte computer screen genre coming of age for a movie that has clear affection towards the technology it depicts, while also being thoroughly committed to confounding the expectations of its audience with every click of the mouse.
Pop or Poop?
The ‘screen life’ genre is a burgeoning cinematic force, but it’s one that has hit a new zenith with Searching. After years of fairly thankless supporting parts, John Cho rises to the occasion for a leading man role and attacks it with genuine emotion, despite the fact he’s largely acting against the unthinking black mirror of a computer screen.
Aneesh Chaganty delivers a parade of twists, rug-pulls and revelations as the story progresses, building to a conclusion that’s genuinely impossible to predict and thrilling when it arrives.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.