By Ivonne Flores Kauffman
Albert Shin, award-winning Canadian director of In Her Place and Point Traverse, presented his third feature Clifton Hill at TIFF 2019. The film, a psychological thriller, tells the story of Abby (Tuppence Middleton), a perturbed young woman, who returns to her hometown in Niagara Falls after her mother’s death, to sell her family’s hotel called The Rainbow. But being back home only makes her relive some traumatic experiences from her past. The films presents Abby as a pathological liar, which makes her an unreliable character and narrator.
Obsessed with finding out about a kidnap she swears she saw take place as a kid, Abby takes extreme measures to solve this alleged crime. However, those close to her know that most of the stories she tells exist only in her mind. At first, Laure (Hannah Gross) — Abby’s estranged sister — refuses to help her find out the truth about what really happened years ago. However, after Abby presents evidence that sustains her theory, Laure joins her in her search for answers.
Abby’s tenacity leads her to meet interesting characters like Walter Bell (David Cronenberg), the local historian and podcast producer, who becomes her ally in finding the truth. But Abby’s persistence to solve the past goes beyond her curiosity as a journalist — a self-given title. Her attempts to find the truth show her desperation to prove that after all, she is not a liar.
Adding to Abby’s own psychological struggle comes millionaire developer Charles Lake III (Eric Johnson), who Abby views as the villain of her story. In her eyes, Charles is behind the mysterious abduction. However, soon enough she will find out that no one can act alone when it comes to the terrible things surrounding the case she so desperately wants to solve.
Charles appears into Abby’s life as the prospective buyer of The Rainbow, Abby’s family motel. Soon enough after Charles convinces Abby to sell the motel, his true colours come to light, at least according to Abby.
Shin’s directing also manages to show the real essence of Niagara Falls during the off-season by incorporating real locations like the UFO-themed restaurant The Flying Saucer. When tourists are gone and the temperature drops, Niagara Falls becomes a ghost town, far from the exuberant town that millions of tourists visit each year during the summer. But showing Niagara Falls during the off-season means the audience can’t be distracted by all its attractions; for this reason, the film relies heavily on its acting and plot.
While Middleton’s acting accomplishes bringing the audience into a state of doubt and confusion, some characters fail to add emotion to the story. Laure and her husband Marcus (Noah Reid ) are one-dimensional characters and their acting lacks depth. The same goes for Andy McQueen who plays the newcomer cop who Abby takes home after a night out just to tell him she is a virgin. Abby’s whole interaction with McQueen’s character is used to highlight Abby’s disorder of building lies around insignificant conversations. Despite the plain characters, the movie gifts the audience with Cronenberg’s performance. His role as the eccentric local historian is perhaps one of the most enjoyable features the film offers us.
Though it is a thriller, the film incorporates a sense of humour with Cronenberg’s character who makes small jokes throughout the film. This humour is just enough to make the audience laugh without taking away from the tense moments.
However, despite unveiling a horrific set of events, the film does not deliver the amount of suspense expected from a psychological thriller. The reason behind it being that Shin, alongside screenwriter James Schultz, incorporated too many damaged characters, such as the Moulins — played by Marie-Josee Croze and Paulino Nunes — who play the parents of the kidnapped boy, in an attempt to enrich the psychological element of the film. However, they failed to explain the traumas and motivations behind their actions.
Overall, Clifton Hill feels loose and unfinished, with an unexpected ending used to salvage it.