She’s Missing is missing a lot more than the absentee of the title. Although the film has an interesting central performance from Lucy Fry, and interesting questions for the viewer to consider, there isn’t enough meat on the bones of this sparse mystery.
Lucy Fry plays Heidi, a diner waitress and best friend of Jane (Eiza Gonzalez), living in a small town in middle-of-nowhere New Mexico. Joined at the hip, Jane goes missing shortly after her hastily-organised wedding to soldier Taylor. Heidi braves the harsh desert societies to seek out her friend, perhaps hoping to also find some renewed purpose in her meandering life.
Alexandra McGuinness’s film feels like a slightly more considered and female-led version of Under The Silver Lake. The tone has the same sense of noirish mystery, but also the same impotent lack of clarity. The editing in the opening scenes is remarkably cut-happy, frequently switching to only slightly different angles in a way that is merely nauseating rather than tonally disorienting (and this is clearly a stylistic choice not employed, for example, in Mairead McIvor’s other editorial work screening at EIFF, A Girl From Mogadishu). Gonzalez’s performance is also weighed down with delivery that is clearly meant to develop intrigue rather than character. She’s Missing works best when her character is, in fact, missing – which only happens after the opening act.
Lucy Fry, on the other hand, gives an excellent central performance as Heidi. Her scenes opposite Christian Carmago’s Lyle – skipping back and forth across the line between confidence and creepiness as a customer who asks her out – are the best of the film. During the focus upon her character the film does make some its more pointed barbs at the state of the USA, Jane declaring “The American Dream has been taken from us” and Heidi being told Lyle – who is in town to set up an immigration detention centre – will “always be ok, because he looks out for himself”. Even as this happens, however, it is done with an unduly foreboding musical score and cryptic line delivery. In this middle segment, the film paints an excellent picture of a profoundly dysfunctional friendship, one based on a destructive and inhibiting co-dependence rather than mutual respect.
There is also plenty to be said in favour of the film’s photography; the dusty desaturated locations drains lifeblood from the setting in much the same way said setting does from the characters. Between recent films like She’s Missing, There Will Be Blood, Sicario, TV shows like Breaking Bad, and the varied eras and genres of cinema represented by Easy Rider, Raising Arizona, Sergio Leone Westerns, and even horror-comedy Tremors, the American Southwest has a storied screen history of uncompromising landscapes.
The film fully takes a turn, near its conclusion, into the needlessly convoluted mystery territory of, say, Under The Silver Lake. A Josh Hartnett-led cult is introduced, as well as a doubling down on opaque dream imagery (which is a recurring element taking on a fuller form as the film progresses). Although the symbolism of the final scenes – Heidi finally moving her life beyond the dead end it was in – strikes home the idea that America is undermining the efforts of its people to progress in their lives, it has been such a slog that the end of the film feels like an oasis in the desert.