For cases like Searching, innovation isn’t enough. Here we’re given a thriller that takes place before our eyes entirely within a computer screen, darting across various social media platforms, news sources, and personal archives. The concept promises a nimble take on a familiar genre, an idea that has already been witness in the Unfriended horror series and in stretches of Michael Haneke’s Happy End to hilariously caustic effect. Searching, however, doesn’t reflect the conciseness of its concept in its execution.
Starring John Cho as David Kim, a father grieving the death of his wife and struggling to communicate with his daughter about their loss, the film is a thriller cuddlier than it is cutting. This father lingers over old photos of happier days and joshes his daughter Margot over menial chores. When Margot goes missing, he begins a hunt through her hard drive and online life to track her down. Aided by the emotional support of his younger brother and the forensic expertise of fellow concerned parent Detective Vick, his is a claustrophic reach into a helpless internet void. David’s digital spelunking plays out onscreen in text bubbles and video chats, begging our eye to dart around the background for clues he misses along the way.
Which plays directly into the film’s missteps of its lurching and languorous pace. The film isn’t as expedient as it could be, making for a slog through its visual hideousness and cheap greeting card sentiment. Our minds process its information faster than the film does, making each of its credibility-stretching reveals all the more silly and expected. Those hidden details throughout give away one or two major plot turns outright, and well before they arrive after an arduous wait. As Vick, Debra Messing appears to be kept hostage herself, forced into an odd characterization that stands in stark contrast to the naturalism of Cho. In its sloppy construction, the film renders its concept down to its least cinematic possible conclusion. Plainly, it’s a mess and not as fun as it should be.
Searching is quicker to lay the saccharine on thick than the intense, peppering it with gloopy sentiment that stops the film in its tracks. It’s at once aware that the story is really about the spiritual survival of a family unit and unaware of how to balance that in the genre, leading to a heavy hand when emotions become involved. You half expect a Hallmark logo to appear at the end, and why not, with all of Searching‘s mannered branding.
Perhaps most disheartening among Searching’s many foibles is how it downplays and ignores Cho’s charisma, forcing an interesting and compelling actor to become a footnote despite being the leading player. The film’s brightest moments come from Cho wordlessly processing the potentially dire situation before him, adding a gravitas to the blunt instrument of the film. It’s a relief when the film brings his performance to the forefront, and the finale suffers greatly by sidelining him. The movie buffers while he delivers.
Proving that an idea is nothing without follow through, Searching lacks a steady, snappy hand to consistently engage us. And perhaps the nerve to have a discernible perspective on our online lives beyond that of the cliche.