DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL: An Easy-To-Follow Caper

If you imagine looking at a shelf that you just finished assembling, you’ll probably see that from afar it seems like it was built nearly perfectly. Upon closer inspection, however, you start to see that the little mistakes begin to pile up. You scratched the hammer on one side of the wood and now there’s a mark, there’s a corner that wasn’t aligned evenly and now it looks like a part of it is sticking out, there are nail-pops in a couple of places. When you stand it up, it is almost perfectly upright. Is that okay? Sure it is. It’s what we like to call “good enough”. You worked hard, followed the instructions and whatever little imperfections there can be ignored but not forgotten. This is an analogous situation for Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill.

The Straight and Narrow

I can think of a lot of screenwriting books I have read that give instructions on the way that movies are generally structured and how producers and financiers generally gravitate towards movies that are structured in a very “typical” manner, similar to other successful movies they see as a model for future investments. The mystery within Disappearance at Clifton Hill, co-written by director Albert Shin with James Schultz, follows a path that has been tread many times before by storytellers and all the markers along the way are familiar and in places, one would expect them to be, like steps in an instruction manual.

source: IFC Films

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the film because again, it all amounts to a movie that is good enough. It doesn’t get bogged down with being too clever or twisty and puts complete faith in the idea that a by-the-book narrative can still be a good watch if you have the right actors and the right mystery to go along with it. It all makes sense.

Following a woman named Abby (Tuppence Middleton) who fights to protect her family’s motel from being sold to a wealthy developer named Charlie Lake (Eric Johnson), the movie’s narrative takes us through the Niagara Falls suburbs with a skeleton in its closet – a ‘skeleton’ that Abby happened to have witnessed in the woods when she was a young girl. From afar the movie remains a well-written, taught, and easy to follow thriller.

Aside from a score by Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty that aims for something more tense and cerebral, like something from Alex Garland, Shin mostly plays it safe. The film’s narrative and the atmosphere are less brooding than it is simply steely, a Winter’s Bone sans the fangs but with an unnerving glare.

Middleton Steers the Ship Home

Disappearance at Clifton Hill has a plot that’s driven by a single character and Tuppence Middleton is asked to steer the ship with her performance and she appears in almost every single scene. She becomes obsessed with the case and her childhood memories of a boy being kidnapped and later found dead. She comes across a set of familiar characters with familiar tropes from other thrillers – family members like her sister Laure (Hannah Gross) who don’t believe her story to Charlie Lake a rich egotistical businessman who becomes her prime suspect, a police officer (Andy McQueen) who she spent an awkward almost-one-night-stand with who now has it out for her. And the most memorable – legendary Canadian film director David Cronenberg in a charming appearance as Walter, the town historian-slash-treasure diver-slash-podcast host who becomes Abby’s number one source and guide to solving her puzzle. Every character is at the mercy of her arc, which allows the script to have to only commit to a straight path and avoid having multiple strands that go nowhere. It keeps the intrigue simple and precise, despite the flaws that come with looking at it a little bit closer.

source: IFC Films

These flaws aren’t deal-breakers but they do hint at the trouble with conventional script rules and models that often appear in screenwriting books and are assumed as marketable material by studios. The structural norms of a film don’t allow for enough experimentation with the visual media because it would blur the ‘clarity’ of what is being presented. It feels like checking items off of a grocery list and when the ending of the film does come, it comes without having learned anything of the characters themselves, simply that they “did the crime”.

Write What You Know and You Can’t Go Wrong

It is to Shin’s credit however that he does inject some originality and playfulness with the atmosphere, again the score being the key source, into two main sequences – the beginning where Abby sees a one-eyed boy and another boy being kidnapped, but also a dream sequence which blends handheld camcorder footage with cinematic cameras. The significance of these sequences is that it’s the only time in the movie where we really are truly allowed into Abby’s head. That the obsession she feels infiates every corner of her life. It makes complete sense that these are allegorical – Shin specifically used a part of his life when his family owned a motel and he witnessed a kidnapping near it to build the framework of his story.

source: IFC Films

The rest of the film would’ve been bolstered to greater lengths with the same sort of vision implemented in those scenes. The ambiguous backstory of Abby’s relationship with her mother and her sister is something that felt shoved in for the sake of making Abby a mysterious figure in her own right, but it doesn’t add much to the main issue with her character – that she is a pretty incompetent and in-over-her-head sleuth who is driven by not much else but memory and obsession. From a big picture perspective, whatever cracks and uneven corners do exist in Disappearance at Clifton Hill are easily glazed by a story that is good enough and does the minimum of what we ask from movies and does it well.

Disappearance at Clifton Hill released in New York and LA on February 28, 2020 with a planned wider release later in the year. 

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