A pleasant surprise for me at the 20th Annual Los Angeles Film Festival is MAN FROM RENO. With his feature debut in 2006, “Big Dreams Little Tokyo”, writer/director Dave Boyle was a fresh, new, fun voice in film. But with each of his next three films, while having charm, the freshness eroded while the films took on a slightly cookie cutter feel. But now he completely shifts thematic tone and is a new, reinvigorated Dave Boyle bringing us the riveting neo-noir MAN FROM RENO.
Filled with MacGuffins, shadowy characters and shrouded in mood and mystery, we meet crime novelist Aki who has “disappeared” from her recent American book tour in San Francisco. In a rural suburb, we meet Sheriff Del Moral investigating first, a man’s disappearance, and then a murder. Alone in San Francisco, Aki meets an extremely handsome man in her hotel lobby, spends the night and then he disappears. Sheriff Del Moral has his own problems with disappearing bodies. Through carefully crafted and often deliberately ambiguous twists and turns, events and characters intersect, leading to a tension-filled story by Boyle and writing partners Joel Clark and Michael Lerman that is suspenseful and riveting.
Ayako Fujitani is a delight as the Nancy Drewish Aki and never moreso than when engaging with veteran actor Pepe Serna’s Sheriff Del Moral. A familiar face to Boyle films, Hiroshi Watanabe does his usual solid work as Hitoshi while Kazuki Kitamura is delicious as Aki’s mysterious one-night stand, Akira.
MAN FROM RENO is unlike anything Dave Boyle has done before. As mentioned, this is fresh and invigorating, as Boyle delves into new territory head-on with a firm grasp on story and development. Tension builds brilliantly. The intrigue established firmly in each of two main plot points and their ultimate intersection and dovetailing into one is the mark of a good storyteller. And, of course, any film that features adorable little turtles in it has got to be a winner!
Characters are extremely well-crafted with performances to match. The whole concept of a female mystery writer writing about a male police detective protagonist is an all too infrequent gender bender. The character of Aki herself is fully realized thanks to Ayako Fujitani who is positively luminous with a wonderful Americanized affability and casualness to her. The camera loves her. The character design is followed through into the visuals with costume designer Irene Chan paying attention to defining wardrobe accessories like a cloche hat and coat; metaphorically in tune with being in the shadows, hiding. But, there is downfall. For a mystery writer writing police stories, Boyle dumbs Aki down, e.g., she opens her hotel room door to someone she doesn’t know, she lets someone she doesn’t know into her room to use the phone rather than send him to the lobby. Small details in the overall construct, but when Boyle has clearly brought his A-game to the table, I hate to see these little things be overlooked.
Lighting and lensing is fluid, calculated, mysterious yet vibrant, telling its own story thanks to the gorgeous cinematography of Richard Wong. Those familiar with Wong may know him best for the breathtaking beauty and texture he brought to “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”. Wong proves he is equally at home with the moodiness of polished noir. Wasting no time in setting the tone, Wong and Boyle dazzle us with the opening sequence filled with fog, haze, not to mention a body falling from the sky, just setting the tone for mystery, intrigue and tension. Divine.
Where Boyle still has difficulty, however, is with editing himself. He is sometimes too precious with his story and imagery and at times is his own worst enemy. MAN FROM RENO would follow through more succinctly had he ended the film with one powerful image and done a quick hard cut to black. Instead, we are given multiple false stops and starts which, although in keeping with the narrative, serve to irritate and alienate the audience.
While the music and score on the whole is well-suited to the film, Boyle doesn't use it to its best advantage. As with his ending, he sometimes gives contra-indicators between music and story within a scene that can make for a frustrating experience as the story goes one way and the music another. The conflicting emotion at moments lead to confusion rather than intrigue.
But at the end of the day, Dave Boyle more than proves his mettle. With MAN FROM RENO, he has found his footing again, showing a maturity and depth of storytelling, expanding his horizons with a polished neo-noir that fascinates and intrigues, and has the audience begging for more.
Directed by Dave Boyle
Written by Dave Boyle, Joel Clark, and Michael Lerman
Cast: Ayako Fujitani, Pepe Serna, Kazuki Kitamura, Hiroshi Watanabe
(2014 Los Angeles Film Festival review)
LAFF Post-Script: Making its world Premiere at the 20th Annual Los Angeles Film Festival, MAN FROM RENO was one of my top two “Must See” narrative features in competition in the festival. MAN FROM RENO took home the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature.