The Best Private Eye Movies You’ve Never Seen

The Missing Person (2009)

John Rosow (Michael Shannon) fills his days and nights with alcohol, cigarettes, and the occasional investigation for cash money. He’s hired to follow a man on a train trip and then asked to return him to New York City, but the simple job takes a turn when he hears the man’s story. It seems he was one of the missing after 9/11 and declared dead, and he has no interest in coming back home.

This is something of an atypical private eye movie in that there’s really not much to the mystery. There are still some revelations as certain motives come to light, but the traditional mystery is nowhere to be found. The man John’s following is rarely out of his sight from early on, and instead the film makes it clear that the missing man of the title may not be quite what expected. The film’s language is fluid as it explores what it means to be a man, what it means to be missing, and what it takes to be found again.

Shannon is key to it all working despite the unconventional genre narrative as he expresses gnawing anguish better than most actors. His pain is real, and it fills every scene alongside the cigarette smoke. He’s far from a typical leading man — although I love it when he lands a leading role — and that too plays into it as despite possibly looking the indifferent private eye type his mannerisms betray a man more in tune with his anger and sadness. It’s a compelling performance in a slow burn tale about the things that get taken from us and the things we leave behind.

The Missing Person is available on DVD and streaming.

Private Eye (2009)

A young medical student in early 20th century Korea stumbles across a body in the woods, and school supply costs being what they are he takes it home for a practice autopsy instead of reporting it to police. The corpse turns out to be the murdered son of an important politician, so the student hires a private eye to help catch the killer and clear his own name.

This feels every bit like a noir private dick meets young Dr. Watson, and the result is a fantastic thriller that immerses viewers in the period and the genre. We’re even introduced to a Q-like character gifting our heroes with gadgets to aid in their sleuthing, and her presence as an aristocratic lady (and badass archer) adds to the thrill. The film builds its mystery layer by layer with clues and commentary on class and punctuates it all with some grim visuals, exciting action beats, and a rousing finale.

Things become a bit convoluted in the third act while also wrapping up far too easily, but the highs far outweigh the lows. Beautiful set-pieces and cinematography along with a fine attention to period detail help create the world, and our heroes run roughshod through it all in pursuit of a very ugly truth. It’s still a crime that this fun thriller both failed to find a US release and never got a sequel, but it remains worth the effort to find it.

Private Eye is not currently available (unless you’re down with Tubi).

Detective Downs (2013)

Robert (Svein André Hofsø) is one hell of a private eye. Probably. He looks the part with a fedora, a trench coat, and a preference for missing person cases, but he’s never actually been hired to find someone. Until now. A woman arrives at the group home where Robert lives — did I mention he has Down Syndrome? — and she insists he find her missing husband.

As should probably be expected, this is no hardcore, serious tale. Fears that the film could turn insensitive and exploitative are quickly squashed in its good-natured antics and sweetness, and while some of it comes from the script the bulk of the film’s heart comes straight out of Hofsø’s performance. There’s real and sincere emotion there, and while it most immediately bolsters our affection it also serves the character extremely well. His method is to step into the missing person’s life by way of their clothes, home, and family, and when he shares his plan to the man’s mother he does so with a hug and a promise. It’s a touching scene, and it accentuates the film’s tone.

Robert sees similarities in the man’s life to his own, and it affects the way he approaches the case. He’s fully aware of his supposed limitations but refuses to be boxed in by them. Neither he nor his character ask or need anyone to feel sorry or pity, and instead he delivers honesty and joy in his interactions. And not for nothing, but his spontaneous dance scene in the park is as happy and life-filled a segment as you’re likely to see.

Detective Downs is not currently available.

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