By Merle Bertrand | September 22, 2004

For The Detective (Duane Sharp), the crime of murder could always be distilled into a simple case of cause and effect: somebody’s dead, and somebody did it. Yet, when the PI, who’s grieving the death of his wife, Nora (Jennifer Siebel) and drowning those sorrows in whiskey, receives a mysterious phone call about a murder at a monastery, his oversimplistic assumption begins to come asunder.

The hard-bitten dick enters the monks’ world like a bull in a china shop crossed with a fish out of water, to mix a coupla cliches; launching immediately into a litany of rapid-fire questions aimed at getting to the bottom of the crime. He doesn’t get very far, at least on the surface, as his primary suspects, Ed (Ezra Buzzington), Jane (Debra Miller), and the Master (Kim Chan) keep him completely off-balance with their passive-aggressive evasiveness.

At first, “Zen Noir” seems like a run-of-the-mill film noir detective story, albeit with the added exotic trappings of a monastery setting. Then, the viewer wonders, with a sinking feeling in their stomach, if maybe the film is a spoof of noir detective stories. Yet before long, the audience, like The Detective, realizes that there’s more going on here than merely a film noir melodrama or a parody. We watch as, in a subtle, seamless, and gently relentless shift, The Detective goes from investigating a mundane murder mystery to exploring such great philosophical questions of the Universe as “What happens when we die?” and “Who am I?”

Director Marc Rosenbush gets the absolute most he can out of his no-budget-friendly, minimalist location and a solid, if unremarkable cast. He’s also scattered around enough bits of unexpected, surreal comedy to keep the audience as off-balance as is his primary character. This all makes “Zen Noir” a fascinating, if somewhat pretentious little film that’s not exactly the cut and dried crime drama that The Detective might have expected. If the viewer can stick with it like The Detective does, however, it’s actually a far more rewarding experience.

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