John McKeown on Albert Shin’s ‘Disappearance at Clifton Hill’ (2019)
One day in 1994, a vulnerable teenage boy disappears at Clifton Hill, near Niagara Falls in Ontario. Abby, the seven-year-old girl who witnesses his kidnapping, subsequently loses her sense of self and familial security. As she grows to womanhood, she’s burdened with a reputation as a serial fantasist. But she also acquires a powerful curiosity, coupled with dogged persistence, which, on her return from Phoenix to her hometown, 24-years later, compels her to drag together clues to the disappearance of the ‘one-eyed boy’. It’s an increasingly threatening and haphazard venture involving the collateral reconstruction of her own life.
Albert Shin’s second feature as writer-director is rich in suggestion, with a nice calibration between the elements of thriller and psychological drama. Returning from a frightening encounter on the US side of the Falls with the Moulins, a couple Abby (Tuppence Middleton) believes responsible for the boy’s disappearance, she passes out at the border crossing after the guard presents her with her sister’s passport, which she’s taken inadvertently. We next see Abby sitting silently in the police station on the Canadian side, her face a motile amalgam of her own and her sister’s, their two identities momentarily merged. It’s only when the view widens, and we see the sister, Laure (Hannah Gross), sitting next to her, that we can be sure who’s who.
It’s a representative moment in the film—unspectacular, unforced, but quietly illustrating the dangerous fluidity and combustibility of Abby’s character. Shin is also unafraid of using more obvious metaphors, like the physical border between the US and Canada, to highlight the sharp division between the sisters. Laure regards Abby as a fantasist, with some justification, while Abby regards her as something of a traitor to their dead mother’s wishes for wanting to sell the family business—The Rainbow Inn motel— to the locally dominant Charles Lake Company. Abby has some justification for her view too, and the uneasy balance of power between the pair is a powerful driver of the film’s current of suspense.
Is Abby going to be sectioned before she solves the mystery of what happened to the ‘one-eyed boy’? Are any of the four male characters going to come to her rescue? Nothing so obvious is possible in the low-key tone that Shin maintains religiously throughout, but the expectation that sensitive masculinity is going to come to her aid dies slowly, a device to enhance Abby’s isolation in a strange forbidding world.
She has a brief abortive fling with the police officer, Singh (Andy McQueen) who later questions her over the border crossing incident. In bed he betrays no understanding, behind the desk, as a rookie cop, no sense of curiosity. Laure’s husband Marcus (Noah Reed) seems more sympathetic, and protective. Abby notices his appearance on one of the screens of the ‘eye-in-the-sky’—the composite security cameras where Laure works— and watches him with interest. Later they sit close in the waiting room of the police station when Abby wants to register herself as a witness to the boy’s disappearance, but there’s little time for potential intimacy to crystallise. Charlie Lake (Eric Johnsson) is so rugged and hero-shaped, that, despite being the scion of the dynastic company which wants to buy Abby and Laure’s motel, he must surely be the one to surprise us by helping Abby find the answer to the boy’s disappearance. But Shin side-steps expectations here too. Charlie “owns this town” he reminds Abby over the sound system of a ‘Haunted House’, in the culmination of a chase scene through a neon-lit fun park. Which leaves Walter (David Cronenberg) a kind of underwater beach-comber who scours the overflow basin of the Falls for lost and discarded valuables while running the Flying Saucer Restaurant, and crusading against local corruption via his weekly podcast. Walter, one of the “tin-foil hat wearing crazies” of the town, as Charlie dubs them, evinces the most sympathy for Abby’s search for the truth, but it’s a cold, distant form of sympathy, with more self-interest in it than the genuine article.
Abby is on her own, and Middleton’s fine-tuned, physically expressive performance keeps us focused on that isolation and the girl’s obsessive pursuit of the solution to the one-eyed boy’s disappearance; her personal vindication, and reconciliation with Laure, depends on it. She’s helped by a highly immersive atmosphere redolent of David Lynch’s work (although the citations are sometimes too obvious). Neons glowing against rainy autumnal twilights, lamps with an almost sentient glow in shuttered, curtained rooms, bits of video film, grainy flickering fillets of the past. The videos slotted into players and watched with fascination by Abby also recall Ridley Scott’s hag-ridden Blade Runner (1982), as does Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty’s soundtrack of distant lamenting saxophone and tense upflows of skittering horn.
The past, however insoluble, is immanent throughout, as is a strange, vaguely articulated sense of menace, compounded of both human and natural malice. “It’s a nice town, but that thing drives people crazy,” says Abby to Singh the night they meet in a bar, indicating the TV images of the unending torrential flow of Niagara Falls.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is available for digital download on 20th July 2020 and on DVD 3rd August 2020.