Melbourne 2015 Review: DOWNRIVER Needs A Paddle

Contributing Writer; Melbourne, Australia (@Kwenton)
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Melbourne 2015 Review: DOWNRIVER Needs A Paddle
Downriver, the Australian feature debut from Grant Scicluna, certainly showed signs of promise: a dour but intensely quiet rumination of redemption set in a murky bush town filled with questionable characters. 

It certainly has the ingredients for an intriguing, mystery-fuelled thriller. It is unfortunate, then, that the film squanders this to focus on blandly delivered exposition as the protagonist James (Reef Ireland) literally visits the people from his past, searching for the body of a boy he killed in his youth down the river.

What is most disappointing here is the wealth of material and intriguing plot that is side-lined by a tame screenplay filled with catharsis that comes off completely dry. Instead, flickers of mystery are buried under clunky delivery and forceful confrontation that turns quasi-violent or homoerotic.

The cast tries to instill melodrama into the long stretches of dullness; Tom Green as Anthony, the film's antagonist, seems tortured and distracted, and he plays this manic role convincingly. It is a shame, then, that most of the supporting cast literally feel like contrived motivators for James to learn convenient plot points. James, who is mostly a traumatised shell as he wanders the small town, follows the mysterious cookie crumbs as it is soon revealed that the actions of the past may not be as clear-cut as James intended. The focus then shifts from redemption to something else entirely, all without cliché or any discernible genre elements. 

Downriver is a simple tale with added elements that try to make it thought-provoking. Like most films of its ilk and considering the strong subject matter, it does not give you all the answers, and in its strongest moments evoke gloom, guilt and repression through the moody cinematography. This is downplayed somewhat by the harsh natural lighting, but the dark intention is still there. There is sparse music that is not used very effectively throughout and a few visual effects that are not used enough. 

One very frustrating device Downriver employs is a voice over of the previous scene's conversation overlapping into the current scene. It is a trick that is over-used and serves no real purpose, and the pacing becomes very fragmented as a result. The river itself is a constant reminder of danger, both past and present, to the protagonist and some of the film's best scenes take place on it. The river is interpreted differently in the film and that is something Scicluna portrays perfectly.

Additional elements and feelings of danger and intrigue keep the film moving, although the tension and thrills are not translated well onto the screen, remaining decidedly flat. There is no ramping up or building momentum, and each scene feels separated from the last. This is a shame, because there are some truly excellent moments of sudden violence that speaks volumes about the fascinating and broken characters in this isolated place; they just need to feel more connected.

Downriver ultimately struggles to leave an impression, although it desperately wants to do so. The genuinely interesting atmosphere is undermined by the unfocused, dragging screenplay and constant exposition, and by the time the revelations come, the interest has waned.

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australian showcaseDownrivergrant sciclunamelbourne international film festivalMIFF 2015

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