Streaming Releases: The Man in the Woods (2020) - Reviewed


Philadelphia based writer-director Noah Buschel has been busily churning out indie dramas since his 2003 debut Bringing Rain starring Paz de la Huerta.  Often dabbling in pulpy film noir, as demonstrated in his 2009 Michael Shannon starring epic The Missing Person as well as the 2014 frame job noir Glass Chin, the director finds himself in close company with Rian Johnson and James Gray for their own distinctive workings of ensemble cast neo noir.  His latest offering The Man in the Woods, released on streaming in late 2020, returns the writer-director to the noir setting with a mystifying but curiously original narrative.

Set in 1963 centered on a group of high school students, a fellow female classmate goes missing in the woods one snowy night.  As her friends mount their own hasty search for the girl, the film begins leaping freely between color and black-and-white cinematography, past and present all building up to a curious if not peculiar finale.  Designed much like a teleplay, the film is less interested in whether or not the missing girl is found and more involved in the interplay between the characters trying to find her.  Moreover, it becomes something of a Twin Peaks story where the idyllic high school setting isn’t all that it seems on the surface.
Viewers new to Buschel’s work will recognize actor William Jackson Harper from Midsommar as an ex-cop navigating a region rife with systemic racism.  His scenes onscreen have a magnetism which some will recall from the early days of Paul Thomas Anderson and of the characters in the film his was certainly the most memorable.  Also leaving an impression on the viewer is Sam Waterston as an old drunk though the most distinguished performer is Oscar nominee Jane Alexander.  The film also sports a strong youth ensemble who are tasked with reciting noirish period dialogue in a manner that feels both dated and contemporary. 

Visually speaking this is a handsomely shot and lit piece by Hotel Mumbai cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews, often relying on shadows and small beams of light on the actors.  A majority of the picture is in black and white though some sequences utilize color to jarring effect.  The picture also sports a moody minimalist score by Hayato Aoki, creating a mood of melancholic unease as well as confusion.  Very clearly a film with a head on it’s shoulders, The Man in the Woods will fall short for most people with an absence of a formal plot and structure and a greater emphasis on tone than plot.  I’m not sure I fully absorbed and processed all this film has to offer but in terms of microbudget neo noir this was an interesting effort from a director I’m curious to seek out more of.

--Andrew Kotwicki