Atmosphere abounds in S.F.-set, noir-inspired ‘Man From Reno’ 

click to enlarge Ayako Fujitani appears in “Man from Reno,” bilingual and bicultural mystery. - COURTESY DAVE BOYLE
  • Ayako Fujitani appears in “Man from Reno,” bilingual and bicultural mystery.
Even the pet-store turtles are imposters in “Man From Reno,” a locally set story about deception, secrets and identity. Writer-director Dave Boyle works these themes into the conducive format of a noir thriller. The movie gets excessive with the twists but features spellbinding atmosphere and irresistible protagonists.

“What if Alan J. Pakula directed a Nancy Drew movie that was half in Japanese?” is how Boyle (“White on Rice”) has described his pitch of this film to backers. Along with those elements, the movie contains hints of 1940s noir, Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and the Coens’ deadpan depictions of humankind at its basest. It also has a tone all its own, a nifty mix of droll, sinister, depressive and enchanting.

Two primary stories unfold as parallel narratives and then entwine.

Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna), a farming-town sheriff, accidentally hits somebody while driving in the uber-fog. The injured party, dubbed “running man” (Hiroshi Watanabe), flees from the hospital.

Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani), a crime novelist from Japan with a large fanbase and a guilty secret, is hiding out in San Francisco, having abandoned her book tour. Feeling isolated and depressed, Aki sleeps with a charismatic Japanese stranger (Kazuki Kitamura). The next day, the man disappears. Strange, suspicious men begin knocking on Aki’s hotel door.

The two disappearances, naturally, are connected, and they bring Paul and Aki together. Out of their league, they go sleuthing in a swamp of brutal crime and treachery. Clarity isn’t Boyle’s strength, and even multiple viewings might not enable viewers to comprehend all that this mystery- and MacGuffin-filled plot (cowritten with Joel Clark and Michael Lerman), delivers: a corpse in a pond, a tabloid photographer, a sleazy millionaire, the above-mentioned turtles, a Reno connection, mispronounced words, and lettuce, for starters.v The resolutions, meanwhile, are unextraordinaracy.

While these problems prove frustrating, Boyle triumphs with mood, character and ideas that keep viewers captivated. Using everything from an homme fatale to a phone number written inside a matchbook cover to the numerous secrets and false identities, Boyle contagiously embraces the noir genre and yet isn’t trapped by it.

He wonderfully imbues the movie with his own themes: strangerhood, dislocation, personal and cultural identity. Aki personifies alienation when visiting old San Francisco friends in a keenly written scene. Elsewhere, as when a quick-thinking Aki deals with the intruder working to unchain her door, the film suggests a horror comedy.

Meahwhile, Boyle’s protagonists are appealing and original protagonists, and compelling suspense builds when they’re surrounded by danger.

Fujitani’s Aki is a charmingly curious, touchingly sad, consistently smart noir heroine. Serna, a longtime character actor, excels as the small-town sheriff treading an unfamiliarly cruel landscape. He never seems stock.

San Francisco, coolly, isn’t represented by cable cars and crabs. Instead, look for bookstores, coffeehouses and shadowy alleys.


Man From Reno

Three stars

Starring: Ayako Fujitani, Pepe Serna, Kazuki Kitamura, Hiroshi Watanabe

Written by: Dave Boyle, Joel Clark, Michael Lerman

Directed by: Dave Boyle

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Note: The director and lead actors will introduce the film at screenings April 10-11 at the Sundance Kabuki.

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Anita Katz

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