10 great missing-person films

From Picnic at Hanging Rock to Gone Girl… as acclaimed Russian drama Loveless arrives in cinemas, we tracked down 10 of the best missing-person mystery movies.

Leigh Singer
Updated:

Loveless (Nelyubov, 2017)

Loveless (Nelyubov, 2017)

Those unfortunate enough to have a loved one go missing, never to return, often speak of it as a fate worse than death. Loss of life, for all its painful finality, is an ending. It marks a transition that, hopefully over time, can be processed, perhaps even lead to a new beginning, whereas a disappearance is a ceaseless torment of the unknown, the unresolved. For a species of storytellers, looking for understanding and meaning in our personal narratives, a lack of closure goes against everything we stand for. Full stop.

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest state-of-the-Russian-nation address, Loveless, begins as a barbed Bergmanesque drama. Middle-class Muscovites Boris and Zhenya count down their bitter marriage with endless bouts of mutual loathing.

The biggest casualty of their marital warfare, however, is their 12-year-old son Alyosha, blameless for being partly the reason for their ill-fated union (Zhenya’s unexpected early pregnancy), yet blamed all the same. Unwanted by both parents, who are each eager for fresh starts with new partners, the boy is either forgotten about when the insults fly, or used as ammunition. Then, after one particularly vicious row, Alyosha flees their cramped flat…

Other, more forgiving filmmakers would use this device as the moment where characters’ animosities are put aside, if only temporarily, for the greater (greatest?) good. Zvyagintsev and regular co-writer Oleg Negin, as previous collaborations testify, resist those impulses. And without revealing their end game here, what they’re charting ultimately isn’t just the disappearance of a child, but the erosion in care and empathy of an entire society.

It’s an icily brutal use of a familiar trope in movies, one that can be used for sustained ambiguity or brilliantly resolved climaxes, as ably demonstrated by the films below.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

In his famous interviews with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock refers to his initial British phase of filmmaking as “the period of the sensation” and his later US run as “when the ideas were fertilised”, thus confirming the popular assumption that the latter is of greater value. A counter-argument? This 1938 classic, arguably as perfect a blend of mystery, comedy and thrills as, say, North by Northwest (1959) and, given its pre-war timeframe advocating resistance over appeasement, far more politically potent.

The unimprovable screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder pits plucky British underdogs against a villainous German spy ring. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave’s gorgeous, sparring couple tries to find May Whitty’s charming, elderly Miss Froy, whose sudden disappearance aboard a moving train is complicated by fellow passengers’ insistence that she was never even there. Hitchcock keeps the entire escapade moving like an express, never stinting on glorious sights en route, including Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s splendid supporting turns as cricket-mad Charters and Caldicott. It’s stiff-upper-lip entertainment on a mile-wide knowing grin: the best of British – and Hitchcock too.

L’avventura (1960)

Director Michelangelo Antonioni

L’avventura (1960)

The ‘adventure’ of the title was one scarcely seen on movie screens before. The first part of Michelangelo Antonioni’s unofficial early 1960s trilogy (followed by La notte and L’eclisse) took pulp melodrama – a woman goes missing on a Mediterranean island, and her lover and best friend fall in love while searching for her – and rejected almost all its obvious pleasures for strange, alienating structure, rhythms and textures that won a new, admittedly select, audience, hungry for something more… what, exactly?

It didn’t hurt to have an actor as alluring in embodying modern existential angst as Monica Vitti, and Antonioni was wise enough to keep her central to his subsequent explorations. But Vitti is just one part of L’avventura’s enigmatic charms. The film’s framing of empty spaces, its silences, its ‘missing-ness’, not just of the disappeared Anna, but of dramatic conventions and perhaps even rational human behaviour, inspired a cinematic mode of expression that helped shape the concept of the European art film.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

Director Otto Preminger

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

Young American expat Ann (Carol Lynley), freshly arrived in London, drops her daughter Bunny off at a new nursery. But on collection, not only is Bunny absent, but no one there has ever seen her (and neither has the film’s audience). Moreover, all the child’s possessions have somehow disappeared from the Lakes’ new flat, and, despite the frantic claims of Ann and her smooth journalist brother Steven (Keir Dullea), Laurence Olivier’s thoughtful copper starts to wonder whether Bunny actually exists at all…

Director Otto Preminger showcases a 1960s London on the cusp of swinging (pop group The Zombies’ appearance on a pub TV jars in all the wrong ways) and hence still slightly shabby and parochial, which suits this hothouse thriller from top – Saul Bass’s eerie, tear-off titles – down to its gothic roots. It’s a creepy oddity that unwinds its central psychological (perhaps even – mild spoiler alert – Psycho-logical) twist fairly, while delighting in weird tangents, such as a sinister attic-dwelling headmistress who listens to recordings of children’s nightmares, and Nöel Coward’s louche, would-be lothario landlord. 

A Man Vanishes (1967)

Director Shohei Imamura

A Man Vanishes (1967)

Shohei Imamura’s fascinating 1967 experiment at first seems straightforward: a documentary tracing the disappearance of Tadashi Oshima, a nondescript, thirtysomething Japanese salesman with a patchy track record (embezzling, a drink problem), by talking to those who knew him – family, fiancée, his paternal boss – to see whether any clues emerge. As filming continues we see shots of the camera, even film crew discussions: the simple process of a naturalistic, handheld investigation, now (over-)familiar territory to fans of Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield and others.

But despite the constant innovation (incorporating stills, voiceover, black rectangles over faces for anonymity), gradually, an uneasy feeling of divergence arises. Not just from the central mystery – Imamura becomes more interested in a burgeoning relationship between two side characters – but from the documentary mode itself, which is dismantled in a stunning finale of fourth-wall (actually, here, all four walls) breaking. Finally, you realise Imamura’s authentic quest: to question the very nature and veracity of ‘cinéma vérité’, wherein a man, and a preconception of cinematic realism, vanishes before our eyes.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Director Peter Weir

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

As with L’avventura, Peter Weir’s harbinger of Australian cinema on a global stage refuses to provide answers for what happens to its missing. In 1900, three teenage schoolgirls, and one teacher, vanish without a trace from their eponymous Valentine’s Day outing. And though one student is eventually found, unable to remember anything of value, Weir, like Antonioni, is more focused on the fallout – what becomes of those left behind.

It’s a film of mood and tone: pristine white Victorian dresses set contrasted against ancient, sun-baked rock that, if you look closely, seems to be impassively watching back. The young women, as much as they represent civilisation and modernity, are ultimately subsumed into nature, and anyone struggling against this is fighting a losing battle. But Weir never forces these points. Instead he keeps the entire film on a delicate, sensory register. The slow motion, swirling montages and ghostly, panpipe-led score at once awaken and suppress a mass hysteria ever simmering below the surface, in a haunting, elusive masterwork.

The Vanishing (1988)

Director George Sluizer

The Vanishing (1988)

It’s all very well disappearing your characters and constructing an enigma around this central mystery, avoiding narrative closure in favour of more abstract ambitions. Sometimes, however, you need to get down and dirty, finish your story for good or ill. And Georges Sluizer’s notorious thriller is all about providing a finite, unambiguous ending.

First things first. Happy, holidaying Dutch couple Rex and Saskia stop at a service station to refuel. Saskia never returns. Three years later, Rex’s obsessive quest to find her is taken to unprecedented mania, when he starts to receive taunting letters from her abductor Raymonde, an unlikely, mild-mannered family man – and sociopath. The cat-and-mouse game between the two men, with knowledge as bait and ultimate prize, ratchets up unbearable tension. What lengths would you go to, to learn the truth? And if you know who’s responsible, surely you have the power? The Vanishing will test your resolve to have all questions answered: its gravely shocking climax is one you might well beg, in vain, to vanish from your nightmares.

Oldboy (2003)

Director Park Chan-wook

Oldboy (2003)

Most films about missing people chart the efforts of the search party. Park Chan-wook, on the other hand, turns victim into seeker. Without warning, Korean businessman Oh Dae-su (the electrifying Choi Min-sik) is abducted and bundled into a windowless hotel room, where he is kept alive on basic rations with only a TV for company. He spends 15 years climbing the walls – suicide attempts are foiled by gassing him unconscious – before suddenly and without warning being freed, and given mere days to figure out who kidnapped him, and why.

Based on a popular Japanese manga, it’s an irresistible mystery. But, as has oft been detailed, it’s Park’s visceral, bravura telling that puts Oldboy among the most acclaimed and accessible foreign-language films of the century, despite (or possibly, because of?) graphic bursts of taboo-busting violence, both physical and emotional. Without giving away its blindsiding climactic revelation, the film cleverly misdirects us from one missing person case to another; so, ultimately, we’re as complicit and helpless as our protagonist in forgetting past – and future – sins.

The Dead Girl (2006)

Director Karen Moncrieff

The Dead Girl (2006)

Criminally underseen and overlooked, Karen Moncrieff’s quintet of stories circles a young murder victim and the repercussions on various women whose lives are touched by her death. Toni Collette, cowed by an abusive, bed-ridden mother, finds her body; Rose Byrne wants to believe the discovery provides closure on her long-missing sister; Mary Beth Hurt makes a shocking revelation about her husband’s nighttime sorties; Marcia Gay Harden loses, and gains, a family member; and finally, we backtrack to the title character and witness Brittany Murphy’s fateful final hours.

An all-star indie cast (also featuring James Franco, Josh Brolin, Kerry Washington and more) excels, and Moncrieff relentlessly probes the deadening, often internalised damage of male-dominated and sanctioned oppression on her varied female protagonists. One wonders if the film would resonate more widely in today’s #MeToo climate. Although perhaps even now its intensely bleak journey into darkness might be too raw, made even more poignant by Murphy’s own tragic, premature passing.

About Elly (2009)

Director Asghar Farhadi

Many audiences discovered Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi through his Oscar-winners A Separation (2011) and The Salesman (2016). Yet the preceding feature, his fourth, is just as accomplished and powerful. It’s another forensic examination of middle-class relationships, deceptions and the bitter costs of preserving honour in a society insistent on the maintenance of outward appearances – even if that means covering up unexpected disappearances.

About Elly casts its unerring gaze over a group of well-to-do college pals (plus kids) on a seaside jolly, who have coerced single kindergarten teacher, Elly, along to matchmake her with expat divorcé Ahmad. To uphold Iranian social strictures, the group must pretend Elly and Ahmad are married, but when a child nearly drowns and Elly mysteriously vanishes, cracks in their story, assumptions and relationships emerge to devastating effect.

This is another stunning example of Farhadi’s gift for humanely exposing the gulf between our idealised selves and our actions under pressure, delivered by some of his country’s finest actors, not least A Separation’s Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini from The Salesman and the mercurial Golshifteh Farahani, last seen in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016).

Gone Girl (2014)

Director David Fincher

Gone Girl (2014)

This is the best of the recent series of hit ‘Girl’ literary adaptations (from those with Dragon Tattoos to those on the Train), all flashy, female-framed mysteries of an urban or domestic noir bent. Like the US The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, this has thriller specialist David Fincher at the helm, plus writer Gillian Flynn deftly streamlining her own novel and distilling its venomous bite.

Even more so than the book, they steer the story of the hunt for a missing, seemingly perfect wife and the suspicion it casts on her charming, callow husband, into an icy black comedy on the act of marriage. Here, “til death do us part”, is merely a matter of deciding on which bodies end up buried. Ben Affleck and, especially, the Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike, deliver career-best turns as the plot twists pile up, and the noose on both tightens with every just-so frame of Fincher’s customarily cool perfectionism. It’s a wedding bouquet of venus flytraps, but, after all, what do you give the couple who have everything?

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