Friday, 19 February 2016

LOOKING FOR MIKE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Compulsive, Deeply Moving Mystery

Looking For Mike (2016)
Dir. Dylan Reibling
Prd. Laura Perlmutter, Andrew Nicholas McCann Smith
Starring: Dylan Reibling, Dave Perry, Jim Cairnes

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Looking for Mike is easily one of the most haunting, compulsively compelling and deeply moving mysteries I've seen in quite some time. Its narrative propels you with the force of a heavily-coaled steam engine and its central figure is imbued with the doggedness of a pit bull's jaws upon its quarry, the kindness of a saint and the calm intelligence of a man whose obsession is virtually a life mission.

Imagine that you are this person.

You're a small town boy in the big, cold city. You begin working at a small high-tech internet startup under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights, bland industrial carpet beneath your feet and placed within one of several cubicles.

Did life just get lonelier than you ever imagined?

Luckily, you hit it off almost immediately with an amiable colleague ten years your senior. Happily and coincidentally, you're both from Goderich, the same sleepy town in Southern Ontario, perhaps the most picaresque community in Canada with a magical cliff overlooking Lake Huron and providing - not one, but TWO sunsets. (No kidding!)

There's so much to talk about and so much to connect with.

When you receive a call from the police informing you of your best friend's death, it's a shocker in more ways than one. He died alone at the age of 33 from a heart attack. Even more astonishing is that your friend is not who you thought he was. He lived and maintained a job and friendship with you under a fake identity. Nothing connects him to anywhere or anyone. All that remains amongst his personal effects is a card, which directs anyone who finds him dead, to phone a specific funeral home. He's prepaid his burial, one week before his death.

Who was this person? Was your whole friendship a lie? Would this person you cared about remain six feet under for an eternity, remembered by virtually nobody but yourself and a few colleagues? Worse yet, as the friend didn't "exist", there are no next-of-kin to provide permission to view any official reports which might have provided some information, some closure.

Nobody knows. Nobody cares. Except you.

Twelve years pass. The longer you wait, the colder the trail is going to get.

The time is now.

This is the reality that faced filmmaker Dylan Reibling. He needed to solve the mystery. Not just for himself, but for his friend - now over one decade dead, but not forgotten, certainly not by Dylan. And whomever his friend really was, maybe, just maybe, there was someone, somewhere out there who had also not forgotten him.

Looking for Mike is, you see, a first-person documentary, but it unravels with the skill and artistry of a genuinely great mystery thriller. With assistance from such real-life experts as Dave Perry (a private detective, formerly of the Toronto Police Service Homicide Division) and Jim Cairnes, retired from his position as Ontario's Deputy Chief Coroner, Reibling, along with his committed producers and key creative crew, embarked upon solving the mystery of his pal by detailing it as it happened on film.

Not knowing it's an actual documentary, and given its darker qualities, one might even think they're watching something akin to Jim McBride's eerie 1967 groundbreaker David Holzman's Diary. But a documentary it is, and a damn fine one at that.

Imbued with all the qualities one expects from a real filmmaker (as opposed, say, to someone bashing off a more informational/journalistic piece or a non-filmmaker being given enough rope to tell their story), Looking for Mike falls neatly into the genre of personal, first-person docs created by the likes of Alan Zweig (Hurt, A Hard Name, Vinyl), Fredrik Gertten (Big Boys Go Bananas), Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) and amongst a few others, Tony Asimakopoulos (Fortunate Son).

In some ways, I was reminded most of Alan Zweig and Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg).

Reibling's personal story happily avoids the kind of self-aggrandizing tub-thumping one might see in a similar documentary from America where the country's ethos would insist upon the filmmaker's "triumph" being the key denouement, but no such triumph exists here. The filmmaker is simply and firstly, a human being who genuinely wants to find the truth behind his mysterious friend, but to also provide some closure to those who might have known the "original" Mike.

Reibling's journey takes him into the lives of people who have been devastated by the disappearance of loved ones and his discomfort with this is clearly palpable. Most importantly, like Zweig, Reibling is not only creating his film as a genuinely brilliant filmmaker, but his film becomes a form of advocacy on the part of its subject(s).

Like Maddin, with My Winnipeg, Reibling roots parts of his story in a hauntingly evocative sense of place (he and Mike shared so many memories of life in Goderich) and one gets a strong, even familiar sense, of how important the specificities of place are. However, no matter how specific the memories, Reibling, like Maddin, evokes feelings which allow for us to have a way in to the subjects and the filmmaker.

This is a film which also manages to work in terms of both human interest and, most importantly, in terms of bringing to light the whole issue of missing persons. We see exactly what kind of time and work goes into this. No wonder thousands of people go missing and are never found. Though Reibling's film is not intentionally an indictment of Canada's shoddy record in ignoring the missing, the fact that the movie exists and that it extensively details just one missing person, makes it, perhaps unintentionally, an indictment indeed. (The film is required viewing for the widest possible audiences, but it's especially important for politicians and law enforcement agencies to see. It's a film that could well provoke far more attention and funding for the thousands of "cold cases" lying ignored in databases from coast to coast.}

Reibling's filmmaking pedigree includes some straight-up TV docs, but most importantly, Silent Garden, one of the best short films ever made in Canada, stands as a deeply moving, visually sumptuous love story of a time when cinema was in its most delicate and truly imaginative stages of development - when the groundwork for cinematic storytelling was laid. There are certainly elements of his obvious love for cinema in Looking For Mike. A number of the (thankfully brief, but effective) dramatic recreations and even the interviews, are gorgeously photographed (by Stephen Chung) and feature a variety of evocative lighting styles - from high-contrast noir qualities to the strange beauty inherent in the shifting landscapes of Southern Ontario.

If there is one problem, and really, it's not a problem in the traditional sense, is that Looking for Mike feels too short. Clearly this is a result of needing to acquiesce to broadcaster needs, as opposed to aesthetic ones. This is, however, a "problem" most filmmakers would die for - a movie in which the audience wants MORE. (God knows, the "wanting more" part and the propulsive qualities of the film can be credited to editor Jordan Crute and his slam-bang cutting.)

The movie is replete with unanswered questions, but none of them affect the overall quality of the film itself. In fact, they provide for the kind of food for thought once the film is over, which allow it to settle and stay with you long after. This is pretty cool, but deep down, I do wish the film had been a shorter feature. Perhaps, at some point, it will be.

In the meantime, Looking for Mike, can be seen (by Canadians only, for now) Thursday, March 3, 2016 at 9 PM on CBC-TV's "First Hand".