Review: DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL, The Woman Who Cried Wolf
Niagara Falls is a odd town. The Canadian side has the advantage of the best views of the one of the world's great natural wonders, and this has turned the area into, as one character says, something of the 'Las Vegas' of the nation. So yes, that means casinos, but it also means some tacky (yet arguable fun) tourist traps, some fancy hotels and some seedy motels, and a populace that knows that its livelyhood depends on such traps. Hence some big money that can control what it wants, when it wants.
A place like this also has its dirty secrets, and lends itself to an air of noir-ish mystery. Disappearance at Clifton Hill wraps a decades-old crime in a story of personal loss and redemption, family strife, and the ways in which we lie to ourselves and our loved ones, sometimes in order to find out the truth, and sometimes to avoid it.
Abby (Tuppence Middleton, Sense8) has returned to her native Niagara Falls in order to finalize the sale of her late mother's budget motel to the local rich developer, Charlie Lake (Eric Johnson). Her sister Laure (Hannah Gross) can't get rid of it soon enough, though Abby wants to try to keep it. She moves into the building, and finds photographs that remind her of a childhood incident: she witnessed a young boy being kidnapped, and that has stayed at the back of her mind for years. For whatever reason, she's determined to find out the truth, 25 years later.
The trouble is, Abby lies. A lot. Neither her parents nor her sister believed her at the time, and her compulsive lying then and now about other things leaves everyone more than a little skeptical. This does not deter Abby, who, after a little digging, finds a connection between the boy and Charlie, and the one person who might believe her: local historian and diver Walter (David Cronenberg), who encourages her to keep investigating.
This is the Niagara Falls you don't see on the tourist websites: the people who make a living, both modest and somewhat underhanded, off the town's 'beauty'; the ones whose existence has been marred by the seedier side and yet are forced back into it; and the ones who try to expose the dirt beneath. Shin and cinematographer Catherine Lutes are smart to only show the falls themselves, except for a few promotional videos, in one shot: large and stark, under cover of night, when it looks more than a little sinister despite its glory, The town as well is really only shown in gloomy weather or lit up by the nightly neon, looking sad in the wet and rain.
The mystery is not so much in the mystery itself, but in Abby's obsession. She believes she knows the identity of the boy - the son of two local celebrity magicians (one played by Québécoise actress Marie-Josée Croze) whose allegedly tame tiger might have helped with their sleight-of-hand - and finds some photographic evidence to help in her pursuit. But the more she entangles herself, and her sister, in the old and nefarious crime, the more the cracks start to show. Abby might be a decent amateur sleuth, but she's also a bit too cocky, as she shows her hand a bit too much to the wrong people.
As more is revealed of Abby's past, and the various lies she has concocted either by her own fragile mind as a means of staving off trauma, or from some egotistical compulsion, the more her obsession with the missing boy seems less about him and more about proving herself to the town and her sister, that there is at least one thing that she can prove is the truth. It would seem to assage her guilt over the circumstances of her mother's last difficult years and Abby's own culpability in the current situation, and an outlet for her anger over those she sees as manipulating not only her family, but the entire town for their own enrichment. Niagara Falls is not just a giant amusement park for the tourists, but like many cash-ready towns, a haven for the rich to do with as they please.
While Shin and his team are going for a Chinatown-esque vibe, there seems to a very Canadian kind of resignation, or at least an acceptance, from the beginning by many of the characters, that certain forces cannot be fought against, and it's best just to let it be. This leads to something of a lack of build-up through the story - we know that Abby will get to the truth, and her road there is less bumpy than one might expect. I was never really worried that Abby might be in serious danger, even when she took some big risks.
But this is not so much about its amateur sleuthing, and more about the world these people inhabit, and the world Abby tries to create. Even if Abby manages to find the truth, it's less helpful than she imagines, and pulls her apart, even if it's for the best. Disappearance at Clifton Hill gives us a good thriller that (like most good thrillers) asks more questions that it answers, and shows us characters both stuck in place, going in circles, and struggling to get out.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill will be released in select cinemas and on demand in Canada and the USA this Friday, Feburary 28th.