Tuesday 21 July 2020

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (Canada 2020: Dir Albert Shin)

I visited Niagara Falls, out of tourist season, a few years ago. It's an odd place: the low level cacophony of the falling water - arguably an 'eighth wonder of the world' if only King Kong would budge over - backdrops a mix of fading homes, extraordinary cold war structures and some truly tacky tourist attractions. It's hard to believe that this could be a holiday - and in some cases honeymoon - destination (step forward 1953's Niagara), but there's nowt so strange as folk.

Which brings us nicely to the characters in Shin's latest feature, and in particular Abby (Tuppence Middleton). Abby has returned to the place where she grew up, Clifton Hill right next to the Falls (a real location, home of the world famous 'Street of Fun' which looks anything but) to deal with the closure and sale of a motel, the 'Rainbow Inn,' owned by her recently deceased mother. A complex character, Abby contrasts with her no nonsense sister Laure (Hannah Gross) who unlike Abby has remained in the Falls area, with both her and husband Marcus (Noah Reid) employed as security staff at a local casino.

Abby's return seems fairly pointless; the terms of the sale of the motel have already been agreed with the local family run fat cat Charles Lake Company - head honcho of which is the uber suave Charlie Lake III (Eric Johnson), a man who you just know has secrets beneath the smile, and who wants to level the site and turn it into a "glow in the dark" golf course. But the real reason for her return is more personal: as a 7 year old back in the early 1990s, she witnessed the violent kidnapping of a boy by two adults - while out on a fishing trip with her family - whose appearance was distinguished by having a bloody bandage over one of his eyes. A lucky snap taken by her mother at the time showed the female occupant of the car used in the abduction; and Abby is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the incident, after finding out that the boy - now identified as Alex Moulin, the son of famed local circus act The Marvellous Moulins - was publicly believed to have taken his own life by plunging into the Falls, although no body was ever found. Utilising local historian and podcaster Walter (a laconic David Cronenberg) who broadcasts from the basement of the famous Flying Saucer restaurant, Abby is able to dig deeper into the story, finding unusual connections which suggest something wider and more sinister.

But there's a further twist to this story (actually there are a lot but I won't spoil them here): Abby is the classic unreliable narrator who has been telly porky pies since childhood. And her return from the city follows a period of self enforced hospitalisation where her fantasist ways had got out of hand. So Abby's investigations are all taken with more than a pinch of salt by her sister, and her disclosures are either disbelieved or denied.

The early scenes of Disappearance at Clifton Hill recall mid period Atom Egoyan; odd characters suppressing their real motives, and the Canadian landscape given an unloved look courtesy of Catherine Lutes' impassive camera. Middleton plays a character that's difficult to sympathise with because she gives so little away, and she takes some increasingly bizarre risks in the name of the investigation that after a while credibility is strained a little, although her sense of loss and confusion remain believable. But there's a good supporting cast to keep things low key and anchored, including Cronenberg and Elizabeth Saunders as the terrifying animal trainer Bev Mole (Elizabeth Saunders). The story behind the movie may not exactly be original, but Shin deserves praise for filming it in a strange and unusual Canadian location - separated from America by one bridge and a passport control office; one can only imagine what it must be like growing up in the place.

Disappearance At Clifton Hill is available on Digital Download from 20 July and on DVD from 3 August.

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