If you’ve ever been trapped in a cabin during a rainy summer-weekend getaway, you’ll know the feeling of cracking a yellowed old mystery paperback, tea in hand, with a dismissive “Oh, I don’t really go for detective novels.” But three hours later you’ve finished the book without even noticing the sun outside. That’s the way it is with Dave Boyle’s sneaky, multilayered Bay Area mystery. It’s totally traditional—there’s even a Nancy Drew reference!—yet refreshingly indie. Among its disparate ingredients are wildlife smuggling, a guy who seems to be killed twice, identity theft, a bestselling series of Japanese detective novels, a menacing paparazzo, and a friendly serial killer.
“I feel like a fraud,” says successful mystery writer Aki (Ayako Fujitani), who’s hiding in San Francisco to escape her fans’ clamoring for a new book. Instead she seems morbidly intent on killing off the franchise. In that doomy state of mind, she consents to a one-night stand with a handsome stranger (Kazuki Kitamura) she’ll initially know as Akira. But both of them, we’ll discover, are imposters. Meanwhile a rural sheriff is looking for a mysterious fugitive, struck by his own patrol car, who’ll eventually lead him to the Aki/Akira conundrum. Paul (veteran character actor Pepe Serna) is a cop perhaps past retirement age, seemingly stepped from a Matlock episode, who even uses a flip-phone. Though he understands nothing of Japanese customs, his dogged investigation runs parallel to Aki’s when Akira abruptly disappears. It takes a leisurely hour for these two sleuths to meet—during which time I wondered if Aki wasn’t the author of the mystery Paul is pursuing.
She’s not, and Man From Reno is more old-fashioned than postmodern, steeped in the scenic San Fran of Vertigo. The sex and violence are tame, and Paul’s fond, quasi-paternal relationship with Aki gives the film an almost winkingly atavistic quality. Doyle, whose Surrogate Valentine played during SIFF ’11, knows we’re expecting the Coen brothers but gives us Agatha Christie instead. His two protagonists are thoroughly decent types, and even their chameleon-like foe is polite to the end—a nicer sort of cipher than Mr. Ripley, who finally even takes the trouble to explain the entire plot. (Mum about all personal details, he coyly mentions that he works in “human resources.”) Not quite comic, Man From Reno wears its genre conventions lightly. You’re sorry to turn the last page.
MAN FROM RENO Runs Thurs., April 30–Mon., May 4 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 111 minutes.