Disappearance at Clifton Hill Movie Review
Written by Ren Zelen
Released by IFC Midnight
Directed by Albert Shin
Written by James Schultz and Albert Shin
2019, 100 minutes, Not Yet Rated
Released on 28th February 2020
Tuppence Middleton as Abby
Hannah Gross as Laure
Marie-Josée Croze as Mrs. Moulin
Eric Johnson as Charlie Lake
David Cronenberg as Walter
For his third feature, Disappearance at Clifton Hill, filmmaker Albert Shin succeeds in generating an atmosphere of seedy strangeness in an area he knows well, Niagara Falls – it is the place where his parents chose to settle when they moved to Canada. Clifton Hill is a tourist destination which comes across like a poor-man’s Vegas, complete with casinos, garish fairground attractions, wax museums and dingy motels.
Unfolding during the winter slow season, the story focuses on Abby (British actress Tuppence Middleton) as she returns to her hometown to settle family affairs after the death of her mother.
Shin sets a cold, sombre tone from the opening scenes where we see Abby as a child on a fishing trip with her parents and her little sister. Wandering off briefly, little Abby comes across an alarming sight – a dirty, bloodied young boy, bandaged across one eye. He is hiding from a car that is slowly driving by, clearly on the prowl. She witnesses a shocking scene which proves to have a profound and enduring effect on her.
As the present-day action opens, after reportedly having spent time in Toronto and Vancouver, the adult Abby is back home with her sister Laure (Hannah Gross), with whom she must determine what to do with their mother’s down-at-heel motel called ‘The Rainbow’.
Pragmatic sister Laure is anxious to sell the empty property and move on. She and the family lawyer think Abby unreasonable when she proves unwilling to sell The Rainbow Motel to Charles Lake III (Eric Johnson), the heir to a wealthy local family of property developers who own most of Clifton Hill’s glitzy attractions. Charles Lake intends to replace The Rainbow with a glow-in-the-dark paintball maze.
Once she is back on home turf, Abby’s past resurfaces and she is troubled by the childhood memory of the injured, frightened, one-eyed boy. She becomes obsessed with finding out the truth behind his disappearance all those years ago.
This leads her to seek information from local historian and surviving member of a family of diving daredevils, Walter Bell (played by director David Cronenberg), who still dives in the river trawling for bones and trinkets.
Bell initiates Abby into an intriguing world of secrets, lies and conspiracies involving the missing boy, the wealthy and corrupt Lake family and some dangerously odd French-Canadian magicians called the Magnificent Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes), whose young son apparently died by suicide. Abby becomes convinced the boy she saw was their son and that there was more to his death than was reported.
Abby tracks down another shady couple, Bev Mole and her now frail husband (Elizabeth Saunders and Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) who had a dubious connection to the Magnificent Moulins and played a sinister role in the fate of the one-eyed boy.
Abby excitedly presents the ‘evidence’ she has gleaned to her sister Laure who exasperatedly reproaches her for having a habit of lying. It turns out that Abby has never been quite as trustworthy as she might seem and that her ally, the self-appointed local historian Walter Bell, is known to be overly keen to publicise his podcast and has long been deemed eccentric and undependable by the local police force.
We begin to realise that we are being presented with at least two unreliable narrators who are leading us along a possibly misleading path in a quest to unravel this decades-old crime.
Abby’s erratic behaviour is demonstrated early on when she flirts with a newcomer (Andy McQueen) in a local bar but then deliberately ruins the chances of a sexual encounter. Unluckily, her potential one-night-stand turns out to be the novice cop who has to take her report on the crime she saw by the river, which she now insists on delivering, 25 years after the fact.
Cronenberg’s scenes are the most enigmatic and dryly humorous, and Middleton is every bit his equal, giving a performance that is both damaged and mysterious. She plays the problematic character of Abby while treading a line between toughness and fragility, openness and reticence, that keeps the audience slightly off-kilter.
Director and co-writer Albert Shin has set his story on a border between two countries, but also on a border between states of mind – between reality and individual perception. His moody psychological thriller exudes an air of the hazy past impinging on the present, which is supported by designers Chris Crane and Judith Ann Clancy’s flair for vintage re-creation, all captured in Catherine Lutes' atmospheric camerawork. Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty's jazz-cacophony score heightens the movie's disorienting nature.
However, the film sets itself off on so many tangents that it finally finds itself in a bit of a psychological tangle. Close to the denouement it offers a revelation which seems to put all before into doubt, and then, just when a satisfactory conclusion appears to have been reached, it presents another final twist which pulls the rug out from under the story, all over again. I guess whether this gives you pleasure or annoys you, depends on your own perceptions. Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a clever, neo-noir mystery-drama which, like its central character, doesn’t always deliver on its promises.
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