Can you really ever know anyone? That’s the main concept with which Searching plays, and while it never quite gets to the thematic meat behind that question, you almost don’t mind. After all, the film is gripping and tense, and it is filled with such extraordinary craft that just the act of WATCHING this movie is a blast for anyone who cares about the movies and cinematic language.
Searching is the latest in a series of movies with a very modern gimmick – the whole film is told on a computer screen. But Searching is different from most of its forebearers in that it doesn’t chain itself to one screen, or to real time. That limited aspect of the gimmick has been jettisoned, and so Searching opens with a montage that spans 17 years (a sort of riff on the opening sequence of Up, sharing the happy home life of the Kim family from the birth of their daughter Margot, through the cancer death of mom Pam, up until the modern day, where widowed dad David is dealing with the fallout of his wife’s death two years previous), and then over the course of the movie jumps from a desktop to a laptop, to a cellphone, to an office computer to a couple of unidentified screens playing YouTube videos. This gives first time feature director Aneesh Chaganty a lot of freedom; he still keeps his story mostly about people on phones and/or computers, but he doesn’t have to bend over backwards to keep explaining why any one scene is being shown on a screen.
That opening montage – some of the best minutes of filmmaking you will see this year, using evolving operating systems and social media platforms to give us a sense of the passing of time – is just the beginning of Chaganty’s extraordinary grasp of visual storytelling. This is a movie that largely consists of John Cho getting more and more agitated while looking into a webcam, and yet it is not only absolutely arresting, it never feels blatantly expositiony. By switching between Facetime and text messages, by showing thought processes in cursors hovering over links, by filling the sides of the screen with extra information (some of it crazy red herrings!), Chaganty makes his movie feel more like an immersive game than a gimmicky thriller.
Chaganty is a young filmmaker – he was born in 1991, the goddamned year I graduated high school – and his perspective is fresh and exciting. That immersiveness is a big part of what makes Searching so unique; Chaganty has come up in an environment where video games are as legitimate a storytelling vehicle as anything more traditional. Just as the Movie Brats were the generation who came to the movies with the movies in their blood, Chaganty represents a generation that comes to the movies with games and transmedia narratives in their blood. The way this generation approaches storytelling will be fundamentally different than any generation before; you can worry about it, or you can watch Searching and realize this is going to give us a new energy at the cinema.
Some older generation magic is required as well. Would Searching work without John Cho? It’s hard to imagine how many other actors could do what he does here, bringing an everyman likability that morphs into a paranoia, and he takes you along on the journey. Harold has come home from White Castle and aged into a hangdog face that represents everyone trying to keep their head above water, emotionally speaking. In Searching Cho plays a kind of adrenalized exhaustion that I have rarely seen on film, and his descent into anger and violence is perfectly essayed. But that descent couldn’t work if Cho wasn’t constantly balancing it with love for his missing daughter, and not some kind of hysterical freak-out love, but one with a true sense of concern and fear.
Some of the most fun stuff in Searching has Cho’s David Kim discovering the new world of teen social media, especially the world of livestreaming. Kim investigates his daughter’s digital life and begins to wonder who this stranger was, this young woman living in his house but living a different life on the internet. As Kim figures out how these services work he also stumbles across the sociopathic hellscape that is modern social media – people preening for the spotlight, anonymous attacks from malignant assholes, nasty YouTube comments, ridiculous rumor-mongering spread via Instagram. SEARCHING, in its best moments, becomes a dark satire of the connected world that is slowly but surely killing each and every one of our souls.
If I have a problem with Searching it’s that the movie’s ending is a little too pat. The film opens up a lot of doors, begins playing with ideas that are dark and disturbing… and then pulls them back for a twist ending that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Matlock. I understand the desire to not go fully dark in this movie (it’s 2018, we could all use a couple of positive endings once in a while), but the triteness of the finale, and how it plays out, cuts the legs out from under Searching just as it promises to become one of the best films of the year. Some of this is the inherent danger of a mystery – your solution will often seem better to you than the solution the authors provide – but a lot of it, I think, comes from a specific desire to send audiences out of the theater feeling upbeat. Which is admirable, but it feels like our browser got hijacked in the last fifteen minutes, and just as the movie gets darkest and creepiest it spins into sunshine.`
What I struggle with at the ending is the way the movie changes themes. What at first seems like a film asking the existential question “Can we ever actually know someone” morphs into a movie that demands we examine our own perspectives for their limitations. After all, the movie is being told from only one point of view – through the screen – and we are only getting the information that filters through that point of view. So is David Kim, and that leads him to conclusions that are not always correct. I think there’s a lot of mileage to be gotten out of that theme, but Searching feels like it gets to that theme late; the movie’s twist is not only about what happened to Margot, it’s also about what the movie was focusing on the whole time.
But if the ending keeps Searching from being an all-timer, the rest of the film remains an extraordinary piece of work that is crafted with absolute skill and relentless intelligence. This is a terrific movie, and I hope that Aneesh Chaganty goes forward in the right directions – he has vision and he has chops. I hope he doesn’t get caught in a low-budget thriller thicket and has the opportunity to next the next steps to a bigger, broader career where he can continue to hone his excellent visual storytelling chops.