A young girl meets a young boy, he has one bleeding eye bandaged over. The boy is clearly trying to stay hidden from someone. A car drives by. The boy runs. The car reverses, and an adult grabs the boy and bundles him into the back of the car. The young girl returns to the rest of her family, told to pose for a photo as she cannot stop looking at the car now driving past them. That's how Disappearance At Clifton Hill starts. It's a good start, and it then moves into interesting territory when we meet Abby (Tuppence Middleton), the grown-up incarnation of that young girl. Abby is back in her hometown, Niagara Falls, after the death of her mother. She wants to see if she can make a go of her mother's business, the Rainbow Inn, before having to sell it to developers. She has six weeks, even if her sister, Laure (Hannah Gross), would just like it all done and over with already. Abby finds a photo from that memorable day that has haunted her for years, which starts her on an investigation into the potential kidnapping/murder of a young boy. But it's hard to get anyone to believe her after so much time has passed, especially as she has a habit of not being able to tell the truth to anyone.
Some friends of mine had recommended Disappearance At Clifton Hall over the past couple of months, which meant I was excited to finally make time for it. Unfortunately, this is one time when my friends and I disagree. Quite strongly.
A feature debut for both director Albert Shin and writer James Schultz, Disappearance At Clifton Hill is a horrible mess for most of the runtime. It also has music from Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty that ranks as some of the worst I have ever heard. Obviously aiming for an unnerving and strange atmosphere throughout, it almost constantly moves from standard strangeness to sound that replicates cassette tape being chewed around some tape heads. Why would you want that? Maybe if your film was as strange, in terms of visuals and plotting, as that soundtrack then it might work. But Shin and Schultz don't have that level of strangeness here. They have a rather traditional mystery tale, with an obvious villain and one enduring clear recollection guiding the amateur investigator, and then try to add layers of distracting oddness. It doesn't work. Perhaps aiming for something like Inherent Vice or Under The Silver Lake, or any number of noirs that have managed to work with strange quirks bolted to the main story thread, neither of the men succeed in their aim. The third act is exceptionally dull in the way it tries to tie everything up neatly, and then becomes tiresome with a final grace note that may or may not be a real underlining of the pointlessness of everything you've just watched.
Middleton is very good in the lead role, a clearly troubled young woman who becomes exasperated as she tries to prove that her other mistakes don't mean she is wrong with her attempts here to discover the fate of a young boy. Gross is equally good as the understandably tense sister, having been hurt and betrayed in the past, but willing to forgive and love and move forward, if possible, and Noah Reid is very likeable as her supportive husband. David Cronenberg is a lot of fun as a local historian and podcaster also trying to get to the truth of things, Andy McQueen is decent as a young cop who is new in town, and Eric Johnson is Charlie Lake, the local businessman who basically owns the town. There are other characters who come to the fore, including the potential kidnappers and a cheesy stage magic act, but the performances aren't that good, mainly thanks to the lack of any consistent tone, and the unsure notion of whether we are seeing people or seeing Abby's version of people. Although only in one or two scenes, Elizabeth Saunders stands out in her role, a suspect named Bev Mole, but that's the only other performance worth praising.
I was hoping for something really good here. Even as things started to falter, I held out hope that it would get back on track. That didn't happen. The opening scenes work well, but then it's a slow and steady downward slide towards real awfulness. Which is a shame, because there are elements here that work. They're just drowned by so many things that don't.
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