Movie Review: Searching

Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I love found footage. My very first great horror love was The Blair Witch Project (which I still stand by as a masterclass in how to build pure terror out of the unknown, and also how to make innocent teenage girls who lived by the woods their entire childhoods terrified to leave the house ever again, but still), and ever since then I’ve been profoundly in love with found footage. I think found footage has been striking out into some really interesting new places lately – I wrote earlier about how found footage has moved from movie screens to social media, and how fucking terrifying that is – so it was only a matter of time before someone turned the found footage notion to a genre outside horror.

Enter Searching: directorial debut of Aneesh Chaganty, the movie follows a widowed father (John Cho) sent spiraling into desperation after his daughter by his late wife vanishes mysteriously. We follow his investigation into her dissapearance takes place entirely through computers, from video chats with the investigator following the case, to chat logs, to livestreams, to social media updates.

Now, I think that without the gimmick, Searching is just a relatively solid thriller. The story is twisty-turny enough, and I have to give Chaganty credit for keeping those twist and turns fair – the evidence is there for you to follow if you’re paying attention, and the big reveals scattered through the story are all seeded well, which I really appreciate. I love a good mystery story, but I love even more one that gives its audience every chance to figure that mystery out alongside the characters.

John Cho is a damn strong lead, and it’s about time he got a really juicy central role like this one to show off his inumerable talents, while Debra Messing as the investigator assigned to the case delivers a solid counterpoint to his increasing desperation and descent into crippling suspicion and doubt. The throughlines of parental love and obsession feel a little trite, but are strong enough to hang the film around without overwhelming the thriller at its heart. While the cinematography is naturally limited by the set-up, Chaganty takes his chances where he can to show his flair for unsettlingly off-center camera work.

But all of that just adds up to something solid – standard decent thriller fare that any jobbing director could turn out. What tips Searching into the compelling thriller it is has everything to do with the found footage gimmick at it’s center. Again, the film doesn’t cheat here, nothing we see on screen coming from anything but a screen – long stretches of the movie are totally silent, nothing but chat logs or social media searches, but every single one of them feels rich with clues and promise of payoff. The quietness forces you to engage with the plot in a way basic exposition doesn’t. Found footage offers a certain amount of immediacy that traditional filmmaking doesn’t, and that’s something that works so well in Searching, as we get to see Cho’s character descending into every parent’s hell in real time, through mediums that almost all of us are personally acquainted with. It feels striking and personal, almost intrusive, and that’s where Searching lifts itself from decent to compelling.

Searching uses its gimmick as more than a selling point, and as a powerful way to communicate the very personal horror of the loss of family. Cho makes a strong case for himself as a go-to leading man, and with his debut, Chaganty has struck out with a bold, brisk, and highly effective spin on both the found footage and thriller genres.

By Louise MacGregor

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(header image courtesy of Vox)

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