Bleakly beautiful, strangely unsatisfying – River (Film Review)

This particular reviewer recently performed in a show where he had the line “Surely you can see that there can be such a thing as a good crime?” This line resonated throughout the bulk of Jamie M. Dagg’s inaugural feature film River.

Set against the bleakly, tropically beautiful backdrop of the Laotian islands and countryside, this is a story of self-discovery in the most imperiled of circumstances. John Lake, a Canadian doctor with an NGO in Laos is taking two weeks’ holiday imposed by his boss after an operating-room disagreement. While away, he intervenes when he sees evidence of the sexual assault of a Laotian girl by an Australian tourist. One thing leads to another and, when the Australian’s body is found in the river the following day, Lake goes on the run in an attempt to get back to his clinic and thence over the border rather than face stern and unbending local justice by a system under pressure from the Australian’s powerful father.

The film itself has already won seven awards, including a Best First Film gong for director/screenwriter Dagg, and Adam Marsden’s cinematography is of a kind where every frame could hang in a gallery – albeit a pretty uncompromising one – but, even having allowed time to digest the film, it still seems strangely unsatisfying, and not just because the all too regular and very leaden use of music from German ambient/drone electronica meisters Troum gave the film the soundtrack to a really bad come-down.

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Now that is not to say that there is not a lot of brilliance in the movie – there is. The whole story arc makes one ask oneself very probing questions about the nature of right and wrong. Can the death of a manifestly bad person be justified if it saves an innocent life? Should the law be softened or set aside in such cases? Is disobedience sometimes the only way to act humanely? The entire piece hangs on such questions – from the early, incredibly graphic scenes in Lake’s operating room when half a dozen gruesomely maimed accident victims are rushed in for treatment, through to his seeming involvement in the death of the Australian through to a troubled conclusion.

However, in asking these questions, Dagg has presented us with a lead character who is neither hero nor antihero – a good man in a difficult situation who one can’t help but feel should have slightly more charisma than he is imbued with by Rossif Sutherland (yes, one of those Sutherlands, and with all the grubby hirsuteness that Kiefer achieves in an action role). Though his sequences on the run often have pace and an adrenaline factor, it seemed a chore in itself to care enough about this surly piece of work to be rooting for him in more than a cursory manner. Similarly, Sara Botsford’s outing as the austere, rule-bound senior doctor Stephanie Novella was inhumanly cold – not giving enough of a sense of a real person under the froideur to make her unbending nature seem believable.

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The true stand-outs were the south-east Asian performers – not least Vithaya Pansringarm as the wise and wily bartender Chai whom Lake encounters before his troubles begin in earnest. However, for sheer visceral humanity, believability and likeability, top marks must go to Douangmany Soliphanh who played the clinic’s driver Douangmany and who, in a few short scenes, delivered in a local brand of French, encapsulated the terrible dilemma faced by a kind-hearted husband and father who had to leave his family for all but two days a month in order to be able to provide for them. His quiet desperation in later appearances had a nuance that other performances strained to – and failed to  – achieve.

The rating that this reviewer has chosen to give River reflects the fact that it is a very well-made film on a technical basis. It is visually arresting, well-written and an engaging story. What it lacks is a central performance that makes the audience truly invest in his plight, and the time (it runs at 88 minutes) to resolve matters in anything more than a rushed fashion. For a début feature, however, it has considerable merit and will no doubt find an audience who may think twice about a gung-ho gap year.

 

4/5

 

Dir: Jamie M. Dagg

Scr: Jamie M. Dagg

Cast: Rossif Sutherland, Sara Botsford, Douangmany Soliphanh, Vithaya Pansringarm, Aiden Gillett, David Soncin, Amphaiphun Phommapunya, Yannavoutthi Chanthalungsy, Ted Atherton

Prd: Nicholas Sorbara, Greg Sorbara, Mattie Do, Todd Brown, David Miller, Naveen Prasad, Douangmany Soliphanh, Adam Marsden, Jai Khana, Sanzhar Sultanov, Chris Lowenstein

DOP: Adam Marsden

Country: Canada/Laos/Thailand

Year: 2015

Running time: 88 mins

River out on DVD and Download Monday 18th July