Will’s soon-to-be ex-wife mysteriously vanishes at a gas station. He delves into the town’s criminal underbelly while running from the authorities in a race against time to find her.
The Plot: 2008’s seminal action movie Taken has made waves in pop culture and in the filmmaking business. Goodman opts to bring that formula, along with 1997’s Breakdown, down to Georgia, trying to take the windier path to get there. It can work, but here the narrative shoots itself in the foot.
About to separate from each other are Will (Butler) and Lisa (Alexander), with the man taking the woman to her parents’ house to ruminate on possible options. Needing to stop at a gas station redirects the trip though, as Lisa disappears after being called to by Knuckles (Embry). It doesn’t take long for Will to reach out to Detective Paterson (Hornsby) and put the word out, but it does take a while for Last Seen Alive to leave the gas station. Locational stagnancy is a trait that sticks around as Frydman’s script digs itself into a handful of places.
Paterson doesn’t help much, and neither does gas station attendant Oscar (Irby), but Lisa’s parents set Will on the right path, which is out in the sticks to Knuckles’ lot and later, to Frank (Kallaway). While it at first Last Seen Alive doesn’t appear to intend to move forward, it finds its footing after reconnecting with the man, even if the mystery angle has already been dispatched thanks to an oddly included framed narrative, where the first images shown of the movie are of Knuckles admitting to taking Lisa. With the conclusion at least somewhat spoiled, Goodman keeps Will spiraling into the depths of the town.
It promises something familiar, and Last Seen Alive delivers with competence, keeping all but Will stuck in place as he’s the only one who has the urgency to move while there’s still time. A question of motive is the last gasp of narrative excitement, which is revealed to be something familiar still, but makes sense in context and is entertaining enough.
The Characters: Frydman keeps things rather banal in terms of character, offering perfect storms of traits and histories, but does at least pay attention to the relationship between LAst Seen Alive’s leading man and his wife.
Will is less of a man with “a very particular set of skills” than most leads in these real-time thrillers, but he retains the personal aspects of a protagonist who does. Instead of being an ex-agent, ex-cop, or ex-military, he’s a real estate salesman who makes mistakes. Fear overtakes the man in short order, as he gets snarky when action isn’t taken, which sets the cops on edge, and speeds recklessly across the roads. All of this makes for the ideal candidate for setting up his wife’s capture, at least in the eyes of the authorities. It’s a little too perfect, but the job is done either way.
Marital problems are a throughline in movies of this ilk, and the trait is present here. Lisa, despite having everything she could ever want, doesn’t feel fulfilled. Will mentions that the last time she felt that way, she cheated on him, and now she wants to spend some time apart. This characterization doesn’t exactly create the same sense of drive for the audience as it does for the leading man; although the script brings in some flashbacks to expand on the issues like Lisa’s lack of transparency about her past, it’s still a hard sell.
Players like Paterson, Knuckles, and others are holdovers from other movies. Paterson is a straightforward investigator, even if he has a (perhaps overplayed) tendency to grill Will instead of working on the case. Knuckles, Frank, and some of their associates are traditional shifty characters who are grimy enough to place blame on (thanks again to the revealing first minute), but no motive.
Will is marginally different from the norm, but the rest of the population in Last Seen Alive is indistinguishable from other efforts.
The Thrills: It can’t quite be overstated how much intrigue the flashforward opening saps from the rest of Last Seen Alive, but the energy and escalation from Will does at least keep things moving at an acceptable clip.
Initially, Last Seen Alive almost refuses to progress, staying in and around the gas station for the first half-hour following Will as he searches the place, retraces his steps, re-retraces his steps, and questions Oscar. It’s not a good start, and the convenient oversight from the clerk further stifles the search. Escalation does come into effect though, as Will has had enough of waiting and roughs up the man to view the security cameras, which he claimed were broken initially.
Paterson’s distrust of Will goes further when they’re together inside the police station, where the detective starts out by asking the basic questions surrounding the situation such as where Will last saw her, what Lisa was doing while Will was filling his tank, and so forth; but the detective gradually insinuates that the husband had something to do with the wife’s disappearance, citing a life insurance policy, her affair with another man, and Will leaving the gas station when Paterson told him to stay put. Its impact as a sequence is limited, but it at least clarifies the inaction on behalf of the police force.
With the pace on the uptick, Will’s journey goes ever downward in its setting. Beating on Oscar sets him in motion, as he knows that Knuckles had something to do with Lisa’s disappearance; and starts his investigation by having a well-choreographed fight with the addict and tying him up to get answers. With not even Lisa’s parents believing his innocence, Will flees into the distance where he finds Frank and a load of seedy characters whose behavior and placement don’t inspire confidence. Still, the people get less helpful and more unpredictable, which maintains the urgency of the makeshift inspector.
The Technics: The director has proven himself to be able to turn limited locations into an asset for his work instead of a pitfall, but with Last Seen Alive, he seems to struggle more than before at creating the same air, even if the final product is still moderately satisfying.
Whether the script or budget is to blame, Last Seen Alive doesn’t have much in the way of scope, staying weirdly small in a story that may have seen some benefit from an expanded search area. Small town Georgia is an interesting setting for this story, but the insistence to stay largely in a gas station, a police station, and the wooded area surrounding them both makes Will’s search feel more limited than it should and his arrival in areas related to the crime come off as incidental instead of deliberate.
Everyone else involved in Last Seen Alive does a good job in their respective roles, from Butler, who gets to do some real acting instead of macho posturing, to Embry in a memorable supporting role. Sam Ewing’s (Victor Crowley, I Am Mortal) score also works in maintaining the suspense, as its usage is sparse everywhere but in the range of the people responsible for Lisa’s absence. The cinematography from Peter Holland (In Like Flynn, Out of Death) and Mark Nguyen (Backtrace, The Menu) is mostly stock, but at times becomes something almost documentarian in its execution, with handheld camerawork and unprompted zooms creating moments of visual distinction.
Last Seen Alive is a movie troubled by odd editorial choices, a too-familiar plot, and a limited number of locations, but it’s still satisfying to watch a movie with good construction holding good actors illustrating a downward spiral of twitchy investigation.