According to legend, when Raymond Carter was asked by the screenwriters who were adapting “The Big Sleep” (including William Faulkner) who killed one of the many victims (a chauffeur) in the labyrinthine story, he reportedly said that he didn’t know himself, and the question remains a matter of dispute among fans. Those who watch Dave Boyle’s “Man from Reno” might be similarly perplexed about some of the plot twists after seeing the picture and might find it difficult to parse things out successfully even after a second or third viewing. (One of them, appropriately enough, involves a dead chauffeur—something that’s surely no accident.) But they’ll probably enjoy the picture as it unspools, and find the puzzle it constructs pleasurable to reflect on afterwards, even if they can’t make all the pieces mesh perfectly.
The picture begins in a bifurcated way, juxtaposing two apparently unrelated disappearances. In one, county sheriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna) comes upon an abandoned car as he’s driving through the fog one night, and as he continues the drive strikes a man (Hiroshi Watanabe) who initially runs away but eventually winds up in the hospital; the night morning, though, he borrows some clothes and runs off, leaving the sheriff to try to track him down.
Elsewhere, Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani), a successful but glum detective novelist, flees Japan to seek anonymity and quiet in San Francisco. (In an amusing turn reminiscent of what once happened to Agatha Christie, the press back home will speculate wildly about her sudden disappearance.) There she meets a handsome stranger (Kazuki Kitamura) who introduces himself as Akira Suzuki and quickly charms his way into her room, and her bed. The next day, however, he too disappears, abandoning a suitcase containing, among other things, a head of lettuce, an oddity that’s only explained later on when Aki discovers something else that he’s left behind in the hotel.
The apparent separateness of the two mysteries is only deepened by the fact that the first is played out in English and the second in Japanese, with subtitles. (At one point the script will make an important plot point over the proper English translation of a Japanese word overheard by a loquacious German fellow played by Karl Heinz Teuber.) But, of course, the two incidents aren’t unrelated at all. Before long the sheriff is knocking at Aki’s door, inquiring after Suzuki. Since by this time she’s already been accosted by some threatening men looking for the man, she’s eager to join the lawman in ferreting out the truth about her one-night stand.
What follows is a veritable avalanche of clues, revelations, close shaves and red herrings involving a slew of secondary characters including one of Del Moral’s rich benefactors back home, the ill, more than slightly sinister Luft (Derrick O’Connor). It turns out that the labyrinthine plot features smuggling, identity theft, alternative medicine and murder. Boyle and his co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman toss in allusions to lots of prior pictures, including “Chinatown” and “Vertigo” and even “The Maltese Falcon” and “Charade,” but their intricate narrative seems especially reminiscent of “The Usual Suspects” in the lavish proliferation of direction and misdirection it tries to tie together in the end—as well as in the decision to avoid a resolution that would leave the audience smugly satisfied that justice has prevailed.
Whether “Man from Reno” really manages to fit all the shards and suggestions it’s strewn along the way into a truly coherent solution is debatable. What isn’t in doubt is that Boyle pulls it off in moody style, aided by Katy Porter’s atmospheric production design, the languid editing by Sean Gillane and Yasu Inoue, Richard Wong’s evocative cinematography and Micah Dahl Anderson’s spare but brooding score. The cast contributes to the feel of the piece, with veteran Serna’s regular-guy geniality complementing Fujitani’s dour determination nicely and Kitamura giving Suzuki a dose of real charisma. Among the supporting cast O’Connor makes a particularly telling impression.
The picture makes a few missteps—a plot thread involving Del Moral’s daughter, who’s also his deputy (Elisha Skorman) is extraneous and could easily have been eliminated. But they can be forgiven in a film that can be frustrating in its steadfast refusal to be clear about who’s who, but by the end has become an effective neo-noirish parable about how slippery and shifting the truth is.