Film critic Scott Wilson reviews Searching, a mystery-thriller told entirely on screens
Searching – ★★★★☆
The second film in a month (after Unfriended: Dark Web) to present itself entirely on screens, Searching takes this fledgling delivery away from found-footage horror and into modern-day investigative clicking. With our worrying love of true-crime stories, fuelled particularly by Serial and Making a Murderer, everyone with an internet connection can delve into swathes of publicly available information, lined up side by side in browser tabs, leading to a personal conviction or acquittal.
Meaning, this ‘shared screen’ type of film is no mere gimmick. Unfriended used our familiarity with omnipresent technology to scare us silly, finding horror in lagging feeds and the bleeps of incoming messages. In Searching, the stress of any missing-person thriller is ramped up by more human, yet distinctively 21st century urges – I found myself frustrated when anyone used weak search terms and did not respond fast enough to notifications.
David Kim, a reliably magnificent John Cho, is confident in his relationship with his daughter, Margot, now two years removed from when his wife died. They message daily, they have their routines, and we see them playfully pick at each other and video call. After staying late at a friend’s to study, Margot tries to phone her dad three times while he is shown on the ‘calling’ screen to be asleep. When he tries to call back the next morning, there is no reply.
With Margot declared missing, David trawls her previous steps for clues of her whereabouts, except our modern footsteps are no longer where we have physically been. Instead, he searches Facebook, Twitter, and a live-feed host site called YouChat to piece together his daughter’s behaviour in the days before she disappeared, all the while receiving assistance from Detective Rosemary Vick.
In Searching, the stress of any missing-person thriller is ramped up by more human, yet distinctively 21st century urges – I found myself frustrated when anyone used weak search terms and did not respond fast enough to notifications.
Like Unfriended, this new approach to storytelling does not get in the way of familiar beats or provocations essential to genre. Regardless of its reliance on screens, Searching still establishes the key-players early, and clues and red herrings are all present and accounted for. How it is told elevates the material, framing the traditions in a new way, but it also respects what audiences expect from this kind of story.
If anything, it falters most when it loses confidence in how far it can take receptive viewers. As if concerned the delivery will be too taxing and new, the score works overtime to signal emotional cues and moods, to a distracting degree. Unfriended relied mostly on an unearthly drone to create a sense of unease, but found-footage films (the closest relative of shared-screen films) are mostly without scores, relying on diagetic sounds instead to provide most of the audio. Given that many are horror films, it makes sense prolonged-silence-which-is-broken-by-a-door-slamming is used so effectively, but it means Searching is left without a reference point when it comes to placing musical cues on top of screens.
It may therefore get a pass. For treading into uncharted territory, Searching gets so much right, fully embracing the new format, enough to forgive its poor scoring. As David clicks through Margot’s profiles, the film lingers long enough on what needs to be seen before moving to a new window or browser page. At a time when neuroscientists are wondering what reading from a screen is doing to our brains, the film understands our newly developed ability to skim and scan a webpage rather than pages of a book.
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It understands the hellscape that the internet has become, too. As coverage of Margot’s disappearance grows, social media responds, blaming the parents for negligence or even as the guilty party, all in throwaway, insignificant-but-not-insignificant tweets. With a seemingly increasing disconnect between the person writing social media posts, the profile they are published to, and the person they are directed at, the film places the viewer in David’s position, on the receiving end of cruel, unempathetic comments. They are not necessary to the plot, yet they are now integral to the process of a crime, as our obsession with true-crime stories and podcasts suggests we are as involved as everyone else.
It neatly ties up what Searching is. By conducting his own investigation, David uses tools at everyone’s disposal to firmly place himself in something the police would rather carry out themselves. He is a reflection of our society unable to resist from getting involved, now that we are invited to give our opinion on literally everything with what fragmented information we have. But it is also a film reflecting the times, where investigations – sometimes citizen-led – are carried out through clicks and scrolls, not door-knocking and interviewing. That in itself is a commentary on how much of a presence we leave with our online activities, and the surveillance capable from monitoring them.
Searching benefits from being one of the first to do this type of thing, and it will undoubtedly lead to diminishing returns just as the found-footage trend did. It utilises the delivery fully, and by having an actor the calibre of John Cho at the centre of the story, the emotion is never compromised for a neat visual trick. It feels genuinely fresh, exciting, and most of all insightful in large part because of how it works, by adapting cinema to what we spend so much of our lives looking at.
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