This tight, densely plotted thriller from writer/director Dave Boyle succeeds almost entirely because of its two leads (pictured above). Although classified as a neo-noir, it certainly doesn’t feel like it throughout its first hour. Sure, we are treated to little riffs on genre tropes (my personal favorite is the hip, female, 2015 version of the “hat and trench coat” combo that many noir gumshoes donned throughout the 40’s and 50’s) but Man from Reno burns so faintly after its fog-filled opening that it often feels like it isn’t burning at all.
I do appreciate Boyle’s dedication to the importance of character, and his two leads are great. Pepe Serna (pictured left) plays what is essentially the “old wise sheriff” archetype, but his skills as an actor, and the sincerity that he brings to the role ensure that Sheriff Del Moral feels unique rather than someone we’ve all seen before. He’s investigating a mysterious homicide while Japanese crime writer Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani) does some investigating of her own into a case of a missing person. We quickly realize that these two investigations, that Boyle runs parallel to, and separate of, one another for much of the film, are interlinked.
I assume Boyle built the film around Aki, as it seems clear that almost all of his focus is on her. It’s enthralling to watch Boyle play around with Aki’s wits (not only is she an excellent crime writer, but she shares a few of her detective characters’ skills as well) and then subvert her expectations and experiences with real-world twists and situations, and subsequently subverting our own expectations as an audience. He also shows his skills as a writer in the way he uses language, and languages, to both build character, spice up the plot, and weave in compelling thematic undercurrents about immigration and identity. That said, it is Ayako Fujitani who is the true star here, owning every aspect of the role. She delivers a very strong, multi-faceted, invested performance, and the film, as slow moving as it is, needed one. That said, as superb as Fujitani is fleshing out this great character, I found much of the plotting around her, particularly in the middle of the film, lacking a pinch of the tension it desperately needed to fully fulfill its slow-burn aspirations. Her investigating is certainly interesting, but Boyle plays around developing character a bit too long, and is perhaps a bit too coy with his mystery elements for it to really thrill like it needs to.
However, when Reno pays off, it really pays off. It’s a movie that makes you emotionally invest without you realizing it, and that’s largely due to Boyle’s skills as a character builder. It may not burn quite like it wants to, but it does just enough to make us feel the twist of the knife in its third act. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Reno as a whole is that, for all of Boyle’s careful developing of his characters, he has crafted a brutally cold noir.
★★★½ out of 5