Review: RIVER, Like Fire Running to a Powder Keg
As children, we are often taught that, when someone is in trouble, we should try to help, or if someone is being bullied, we should intervene. But sometimes, there can be unforeseen consequences that would endanger ourselves.
Jamie M. Dagg's first feature film, River, takes this endangerment to the extreme in a taut and exciting, if somewhat narratively sparse thriller. The first North American film to be shot in Laos, it uses its location to great advantage as it follows one man's desperate run from the authorities.
John Lake (Rossif Sutherland) is an American doctor working at an NGO clinic in Vientiane. With stress taking its toll, he goes on holiday to the south, where he can sit in the sun and drink to his heart's content. At a bar one night, two Australian tourists are chatting up and plying local girls with drinks. John tells the men that maybe they should lay off. On his way home, he finds one of the men on the beach, and one of the girls unconscious near him in a state of undress. Leaping to her defense, John gets into a physical altercation that ends up with the Australian dead, and John on the run.
Dagg gives just enough information at the beginning to set up the story, and wastes no time to bring us to why we are here: the chase. While there are obligatory shots of the landscape to give a sense of place, Dagg and cinematographer Adam Marsden keep the shots in tight to John and his immediate surroundings as much as possible. Shooting almost entirely outdoors and in the natural light adds to the realism, which adds to the fear and tension. We are both alongside John, but also slightly outside, watching (and possibly judging) his actions.
Everything happens so fast that John has to think on his feet; while telling the authorities the truth might be the right course of action, it's hard to deny or blame John for his fear. He makes some smart decisions, some bad ones, and has both good and bad luck. The chase is definitely the best part of the film; Dagg makes every shot count, and the editing is crisp and tight against the shaking camera. I felt a bit nauseous once or twice, but that was part of the engagement, and added to the tension.
It is to Sutherland's credit that he is able to make John believable in a very short space of time. We only have a few minutes to get to know him, and Sutherland gives us enough that we are, if not necessarily in agreement with him, sympathetic to his plight and concerned for his safety (up to a point).
I wouldn't say that John is necessarily standing in as the 'everyman' for the audience, but this is to the story's benefit. He doesn't look down on the people of Laos, especially as he is helping them, but he is intelligent enough to know that his privilege will get him so far, though not far enough to avoid jail if he is caught. Sutherland does some great physical performing, showing how John gets weaker as the story and his escape progress, but somehow finding the strength because he has little choice. And John might be a privileged westerner, but he isn't a snob, and he is a man with a conscious: self-preservation might take over for a while, but he knows that he cannot let others take the fall for his actions.
This is where River is not a typical chase thriller, and where more explanation and a deeper exploration in the story was necessary. The is about a white man in an Asian country; the consequences if he is caught are worse than if this happened in his home country. I suspect that, like many in the audience, I know very little about Laos. Why would it be more dangerous if he was caught there than, say, Thailand, or another Asian country? Are we just supposed to assume (or believe that John is assuming) a terrible fate out of ignorance of the justice system? Obviously, anyone in that position, where circumstantial evidence would pin more crimes on John than he committed, would be afraid.
But the lack of exposition on the subject made it seem like Laos was chosen at random, which I doubt it was. If this is the white man in danger in the foreign country, it should have significance, particularly considering how little most people probably know about Laos. There was a missed opportunity here to make a stronger statement about the behaviour of westerners in Asian countries, debates about human rights and the political and justice systems. It's touched on briefly, but too briefly; a bit more development would have added interesting layers to the story.
As a man-on-the-run film, River is excellent, stripping down to the core of this narrative with aggressive and engaging shots and a great central performance; it runs through it's first 60 minutes like a fire running to a powder keg. More engagement with its location outside of the physical would have given it's story greater depth and power.
[Full Disclosure: ScreenAnarchy founder and editor Todd Brown is an executive producer of this film. He was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.]
Review originally published during the Toronto Film Festival in September 2015. The film open in select theaters on Friday, June 24, via Well Go USA.