(Canada/Laos, 95 min.)
Written and directed by Jamie M. Dagg
Starring: Rossif Sutherland, Sarah Botsford, Douangmany Soliphanh, Aiden Gillett
Rossif Sutherland keeps on running in River, but the film doesn’t move towards any heavenly body. This brisk yet sluggish chase move just keeps going as newcomer Jamie M. Dagg, winner of this year’s Canadian Screen Award for best first feature, recycles clichés in a thriller that shows much promise despite its overall unevenness. The film literally runs out of gas—twice—as Sutherland runs and runs without really getting anywhere. River is also hustle, no flow.
Sutherland (nominated for a Screenie for his performance) stars as American doctor John Lake who is doing a tour with a clinic in Laos. He doesn’t really fit in at the clinic, nor does he respect the authority of his supervisor (Sarah Botsford), but he’s passionate about saving lives as the opening ER scene shows. John gets to save the day again when he takes a short vacation in a Laotian village and stumbles upon the aftermath of a sexual assault in which a boorish Aussie (Aiden Gillett) takes advantage of a girl after filling her with liquor. John loses control and brutally pummels the offender to death, leaving him afloat in the river, while the girl misreads the situation as identifies John as her aggressor. Rather than talk things out and explain himself to the cops, he flees.
River puts an unconventional spin on the white saviour narrative as John’s desire to save and protect vulnerable people unleashes his capacity for violence. His behaviour becomes increasingly irrational as he evades the police and he often embodies the stereotype of the entitled westerner who throws money around and causes chaos in a foreign land. The further he runs, the deeper he falls into the abyss of his own demons.
Sutherland admirably throws himself into a largely physical performance as a desperate man in way over his head. The film works against him, though, because it’s hard to sympathise for a man who takes a moral high road, yet refuses to hold himself accountable for his actions. His intentions in saving the girl are noble, but he’s also a blind, out of control alcoholic who killed someone in a drunken rage. The swift pace of the film doesn’t give John a chance to earn the audience’s sympathy, either, as it throws one roadblock after another in John’s direction. It’s a film of complications, but not one for character development, so it’s hard to care much about John’s predicament, although he redeems himself in the end.
Dagg admirably tries to create a thriller out of narrative that is essentially a one-man show and River finds pockets of suspense as John attempts to return home to America, but the genre workings overwhelm the film as shaky camerawork and kinetic editing prove nauseating with their wannabe Danny Boyle breathlessness as River careers towards kitchen sink territory. There’s a great opportunity for a great character study here, though, as Dagg explore one man’s capacity for violence. If River flowed towards the waters of an art film, rather than to the rapids of a genre piece, it might be great.
River also finds its own set of tensions with the elements of place and character that ripple through it. As the first North American production to shoot in Laos, River uses the busy streets and the energetic trappings of the villages as integral parts of its character without seeming too exotic. However, River finds itself in the murky waters that often trouble Canadian productions as it rejects elements of tangible Canadianness in favour of American appeal. River runs into troubled waters by awkwardly introducing John’s Americanness late in the film as he seeks aid from the embassy, as if a US passport validates his hero complex and efforts to shirk the law. Since River offers a fair bit of French dialogue given the French colonial history of Laos, John seems ideally suited to be Canadian anyways. There isn’t any reason for John to be an American, perhaps other than to create an obnoxious tourist without making it seem as if Canadians can also be entitled d-bags whilst on vacation.
River is now playing in limited release.