‘Man From Reno’
Dave Boyle
Stars: Ayako Fujitani, Pepe Serna
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Man From Reno” is a neo-noir so subtle you might not even realize it’s a neo-noir until things have turned hairy. And you really should have known all along because the genre signs are everywhere: a dead body, a hotly pursued MacGuffin, a mysterious stranger posing as someone else, sinister ne’er-do-wells. One of our heroes is even a famous mystery novelist. But the tone established by director Dave Boyle is so laidback and “normal” that it’s easy to think of this as some indie invaded, ever so gradually, by a tall tale genre.

The mystery itself is paperback-level convoluted. Ayako Fujitani, Steven Seagal’s daughter, is our passive-ish lead: Aki, a celebrated but reclusive writer of page-turners who finds herself in San Francisco while on the lam from her latest book tour. She winds up romanced by a charming, fumbling Japanese-American stranger (Kazuki Kitamura). But he suddenly goes missing and turns up dead — or someone does with the same alleged name. Meanwhile, aging Northern California sheriff Paul (Pepe Serna, who has it happened once played a character named Reno Nevada in “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai”) finds a case he’s working on, one involving a stranger he hit with his car, ties up with the one involving Aki.

As any self-respecting mystery-head knows, the pleasures of a whodunit (or whatsgoingon, as it is here) aren’t found in the plot machinations. They’re in the mood, the scene-by-scene. “Man From Reno” simultaneously works a fairly labyrinthine plot while normalizing it, rooting it in the everyday. Fujitani is a more domineering screen presence than her sleepy father, which is to say she’s still extremely aloof and quiet — a perverse choice for a snooping hero. She comes off as someone who writes erudite short stories, not twisty pulp thrillers. Serna’s Paul, by contrast, is a more classical hero: a laidback, confident old-timer who oozes chill Will Pattonish charm.

“Man From Reno” means to throw you off its scent; Boyle even hails from musical-driven, tiny indies, including his excellent Goh Nakamura-starring diptych “Surrogate Valentine” and “Daylight Savings.” The confidence-game works: What Boyle’s film is really getting at isn’t the mystery itself but the genre’s existential dread. Everything’s so normalized that it doesn’t seem possible that the complex web of intrigue that gradually reveals itself could so powerful. But it is, and what comes across is the feeling of a shadowy organization that operates beyond one’s detection, grasp or control. To reveal the film’s best scene would be a major spoiler, but it arrives late in and is as unexpected to us as it is to the character it happens to. Once that happens, the world suddenly seems a bigger and scarier place, one that can’t be contained by something as simple as a genre.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge