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LAFF Review: Pepe Serna is a Standout in Ambiguous Detective Noir ‘Man from Reno’

LAFF Review: Pepe Serna is a Standout in Ambiguous Detective Noir 'Man from Reno'

The unease at the heart of “Man from Reno” is expressed via two different, initially separate, narrative threads. In one, burnt-out mystery novelist Aki absconds to San Francisco to escape the doldrums of a press tour, causing a flood of media speculation in her native Japan; in the other, a sheriff from elsewhere in the Bay Area runs over (and nearly kills) an unidentified Japanese man who’d abandoned his vehicle earlier that foggy night. Shortly after checking himself out of the hospital, the mysterious victim is found face-down in a pond.

That these two plot lines are connected is a certainty, yet the how and why of it all remain clouded for quite some time. Even if you think you’ve figured out the identity of the eponymous Nevadan early on, the suspicion that this case is littered with misdirection and outright lies grows from scene to scene. Co-writer/director Dave Boyle keeps that fuse burning slowly but brightly; when Aki (Ayako Fujitani) and Sheriff Del Moral (Pepe Serna) finally meet an hour in, it feels like their stories couldn’t have merged at any other point.

The feeling that seemingly disparate elements have fallen into place at just the right time is a commonplace in Boyle’s film, sometimes to the point of making it all feel too neat. Things that appear odd but inconsequential show up often enough that you, like the professional and amateur sleuths at the fore, question their meaning: A Japanese paparazzo, head of lettuce, and strange business card stick out like sore thumbs. Ascribing too little or too much to any one of these potential clues feels like putting the cart before the horse, and making heads or tails of them proves as dangerous for the characters as it is engaging for us.

Though it’s all a bit frightful and off-putting for Aki, the writer in her can’t help but be intrigued—after all, this could be the inspiration for her next book. This process of not only sifting through fact and fiction but using the absence of the former to create the latter — call it storytelling as coping mechanism — is fittingly well-studied.

Ayako Fujitani is the standout here, bringing a vulnerable confidence to Aki that makes her credible and sympathetic. She repeatedly finds herself in horror-movie situations (a hand trying to unchain the lock on the door of her hotel room, being asked to get into a car by two men claiming to be with the FBI) and, just when it seems she’ll do the kind of dumb thing characters in these films always do, she stops and either defuses the situation or removes herself from it entirely. Aki is proactive and quick on her feet, which makes her a useful ally to Del Moral, who enlists her help in the investigation. (“I don’t speak Japanese,” he explains simply to his skeptical daughter.) The platonic bond that forms between the two might make you wonder how the very good Serna, who’s appeared in more than 100 movies, has never starred in one until now.

Still, some of the incessant ominousness that comes along with this process feels forced onto the material rather than a natural outgrowth of it. Foreboding music works overtime, and many a character is creepily monosyllabic to the point of disbelief. It’s hard not to feel that Boyle may be out of his league at times, what with a subplot straight out of Atom Egoyan’s “Exotica” and a tone that feels overly reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men.” The intrigue of not knowing the truth is gradually supplanted by the disappointment of realizing how grim and banal it is, but Boyle doesn’t resort to fashionable cynicism. Like his two leads, he maintains a matter-of-factness that allows us to survey the evidence and reach our own conclusions.

Grade: B-

“Man from Reno” premiered this week at the L.A. Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.

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