There’s something unsettling about San Francisco, which has been an epicenter of cinematic paranoia ever since James Stewart stalked Kim Novak through Vertigo. Over the years, filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation), Philip Kaufman (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), and Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct) have exploited its winding streets and fogged-out sight lines for maximum tension.
The independently produced thriller Man From Reno isn’t in the (heavy)weight class of those films, but it’s worthy on its own modest terms. Touching down in the City By The Bay on a book tour, thirtysomething Tokyo-based novelist Aki (Ayako Fujitani) decides to get lost in the city, partially because she’s sick of pushing her latest bestseller and partially because she’s looking for a little bit of the intrigue she’s made such a nice living writing about. Fate obliges in the form of a handsome Japanese tourist named Akira (Kazui Kitamura), who recognizes Aki and surprises her with his literary knowledge. He’s the kind of guy who recognizes a Mark Twain quote dropped into casual conversation.
Akira, as it turns out, is full of surprises; in a film that name-checks Nevada in its title, he’s the wild card. Writer-director Dave Boyle, meanwhile, plays his cards close to his chest, cutting back and forth between Aki and Akira’s burgeoning romance—and his subsequent disappearance into thin air—and a police investigation into a Bay Area hit and run involving the local sheriff (Pepe Serna), whose wizened countenance evokes Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. To quote another beloved Coen brothers cop, it’d be quite a coincidence if these two plotlines weren’t, you know, connected. But Man From Reno doesn’t rush its revelations, instead inviting the viewer to revel in its atmosphere of cozy foreboding—the same kind you get from a good airport paperback.
Fujitani, who starred in Boyle’s previous feature, Daylight Savings (2012), projects just the right amount of wariness in a cleverly written part. As the film opens, Aki has lost her taste for writing mysteries and doesn’t slip so easily into the role of real-life sleuth. And Serna, a reliable character actor with hundreds of film and television credits, makes the most of a rare feature-film lead. He’s got the alert eyes of a career lawman, and he imbues his character’s relationship with his grown-up daughter (Elisha Skorman) with a sense of paternal overprotectiveness that resonates, albeit indirectly, at the movie’s conclusion.
Man From Reno is tightly written and meticulously well edited, and yet for all its evident skill, it’s less than the sum of its nicely humming parts. It may be that Boyle and his co-writers, Michael Lerman and Joel Clark, have succeeded too well in keeping their story small-scale. The ruthlessness of the plotting is admirable, and one neatly staged encounter in a hotel room may catch viewers off-guard, but the film is finally more downbeat than devastating. There’s some sting in this tale, but only a little bit.