When a movie opens with a fish dangling on a hook it’s a safe bet that the audience is meant to be the fish. Such is the case in the Canadian feature “Disappearance at Clifton Hill”, part crime drama, part detective story, part psychological thriller. We even get a splash of neo-noir. It’s fittingly set in the enigma that is Niagara Falls, a city as antithetical as the movie itself.
The film stars Tuppence Middleton who’s terrific playing Abby, a troubled young woman returning home after the death of her mother. In a gripping prologue we learn that a 7-year-old Abby witnessed the violent kidnapping of a boy while on a fishing trip with her family. In the years since Abby has had a turbulent life which has driven a wedge between her and her sister Laure (Hannah Gross). The two come together to settle their mother’s affairs, most notably what to do with the family owned Rainbow Inn.
While in town Abby is reminded of what she witnessed years earlier. She goes to the cops but they aren’t interested in her story. Her sister thinks it’s another one of her wild made-up tales to get attention. But Abby meets Walter Bell (David Cronenberg in a rare acting appearance). He’s an eccentric local podcaster who dabbles equally in city history and conspiracy. Walter encourages her to dig deeper into the mystery, all but assuring her there is more to it than meets the eye.
Director Albert Shin and his co-screenwriter James Schultz do a great job of building suspense without tipping their hand. In a way Abby is our representative, full of questions and uncertainty just like us. But at the same time Shin and Schultz are baiting us, and just like the fish in the opening shot, once we’re on the hook they reel us in. I’ll leave it there because the less you know the better.
Shin makes great use of his setting, showing a shade of Niagara Falls that many people may not be aware of. Casinos, cheap tourist traps, seedy motels, all bathed in a neon glow – it’s the perfect vibe for a city that could be harboring a dark and dirty secret. Tip of the hat to cinematographer Catherine Lutes who captures the moody ambiance and helps convey a tone rich with unease. Other cool visual touches include the use of Polaroids, old VHS tapes, and even Microfilm.
Through Abby’s obsessive search for answers we meet several interesting players. Marie-Josée Croze plays the female half of a local husband/wife magic act. She’s fantastic and almost steals the show in a particularly great diner scene. Eric Johnson embodies all of the slime and smugness you would want from a pampered rich kid from the city’s most powerful family. And I mentioned Cronenberg who always pops up at just the right time. He brings a certain gravitas to a wacky but fun role.￼
Despite a couple of lulls in the middle, “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” keeps you in its grip in large part thanks to Middleton’s strong lead. Her performance is raw and organic, always working at the right temperature. And while the clever story may not neatly tie up all of its loose ends, the ending left me satisfied and with a smile across my face. In other words, it was well worth the ride.
VERDICT – 4 STARS