A bilingual genre two-hander in search of common ground between Haruki Murakami’s low-key alienation and the Coen brothers’ deadpan existentialism, Dave Boyle’s “Man From Reno” is hardly the equal of its inspirations, but it nonetheless makes for a pleasantly mellow, well-structured concoction. Tracing a Japanese mystery author’s strange sojourn into San Francisco, and a small-town sheriff’s pursuit of a possibly connected missing-persons case, the pic prevails largely on mood — conjuring a strange sense of coziness with potential danger always flitting around the margins — as well as its evocative photography of the misty city by the Bay. Future festival play is probably the best this pic can hope for theatrically (it won the Los Angeles fest’s narrative feature award), but director Boyle and star Ayako Fujitani both make solid cases for bigger projects going forward.
Though it wears its film-noir influences on its sleeve, “Man From Reno” might more accurately be described as film gris. Opening with a scene so foggy it may as well be taking place inside a sulfur cloud, elderly sheriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna) happens upon a suspicious abandoned vehicle in the outskirts of his sleepy Bay Area community. After investigating, he accidentally runs over a battered, smartly dressed man (Hiroshi Watanabe) who materializes out of the haze, knocking him unconscious. The man then disappears from the hospital before he can be questioned.
Meanwhile, up in the marginally less overcast North Beach, successful yet demoralized young author Aki Akahori (Fujitani) has absconded from the book tour for her latest potboiler, creating a stir in the Japanese press, and alighted to San Francisco. Afflicted with a bout of imposter syndrome and needing some mildly depressive downtime, she catches up with old friends and wanders the streets, later approached at a bar by a suave Japanese man (Kazuki Kitamura) with mysterious Nevada connections.
Though she initially rebuffs him, this homme fatal reappears the next day and charms his way into her bedroom. Soon after, he too vanishes, leaving behind a trail of clues — a head of cabbage, a handwritten business card — that gradually draw Aki into the company of some highly unsavory characters.
Aki can be somewhat inexpressive as a protagonist, but she evolves into a nicely dynamic heroine once the plot’s screws start tightening. She’s curious and bold without being reckless, her knack for crafting literary whodunits alternately helping and hindering her hesitant investigations, and she manages to worm her way out of dicey situations in amusingly matter-of-fact ways. (Her response to an intruder trying to undo her door chain is particularly memorable in its obviousness.) Sheriff Paul’s plot strand is a bit less engaging — his relationship with a daughter (Elisha Skorman) following in his footsteps is rather underdeveloped — but when the two leads finally unite, they form a nicely unlikely partnership that brings out the best in both actors.
The film’s central intrigue comes only gradually into view, and it manages to be both outlandishly strange and oddly uninteresting once all the hands have been shown. The film’s numerous visual references to “Chinatown” are a bit on the nose, and some very minor plot holes — more like plot divots — slow momentum here and there. But Boyle keeps the wheels churning nicely for the most part, and the climax ratchets up the pic’s sense of urgency without loosening its bearings.
Boyle displays fine directorial control throughout, staging some handsome horizontal tracking shots with a stately hand, while his script (co-written with Joel Clark and Michael Lerman) makes clever use of the Japanese-English language divide. Cinematographer Richard Wong is the standout in a very strong below-the-line crew, and composer Micah Dahl Anderson uses spare piano and cello to craft a memorably ominous score.