Saturday, March 7, 2020

DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL: Albert Shin's look at Pontius Pilate's famous question

"What is truth?" the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is said to have asked Jesus of Nazareth, prior to ordering his crucifixion. His now famous question gets quite a working over by Albert Shin, the director and co-writer (with James Schultz) of the new movie DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL.

Though the film is hardly what you'd call religious, "truth" and the difficulty of procuring it -- let alone knowing if you've actually nailed the goddamned thing -- sits front and center throughout this intelligent, tricky, and sometimes startling little movie. You could also think of it as a perfect film to showcase the current and sickening Presidency of that uber-liar, Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump lies constantly because either he cannot help it and/or he has found it the best way through life when you're a born scam artist. The heroine of the film at hand, played quite well by Tuppence Middleton, shown above, an actress who seems to be cornering the market for dark, sad, problemed characters (Sense8 and MI-5, among others), is here giving us one of the least reliable narrators the movies have yet offered.

And yet, the event that opens this film -- the disappearance of the title, which looks an awfully lot like a kidnapping -- is so well staged and filmed that it grabs us (along with Middleton's character, Abby, as a little girl) and simply never lets go. As an adult, when Abby returns to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, where she grew up, she immediately begins to investigate this thing that has stayed with and so riled her over the years.

Filmmaker Shin, shown at right, offers us a Canadian Niagara that, even with its seedy carnival-like atmosphere, seems about as dark and dank a place as you've seen. Even by day, it's usually gray.

As Abby investigates, she comes upon everyone from an elderly diver (a fine and feisty role for David Cronenberg, above) who doubles as a podcast host and is certain he knows who was responsible for that kidnapping/disappearance -- and why -- to the wealthy family who apparently runs the town, whose scion just might be a child-molesting murderer, to the missing kid's mother and father, a kind of low-rent Siegfried & Roy (exceptionally well-played by Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes, shown right and left, respectively, below). The scene in a diner between Abby and the parents is probably the strongest in the entire movie.

Nothing quite pans out the way we or Abby might like it to, yet at the same time, everything sort of does, too -- in its own odd way. As the film winds along, Abby herself is exposed as something of a fantasist (some might simply say "liar"), which only add to the confusion about what the "truth" might be. The film's final scene -- between Abby, now working as a clerk in a semi-posh local hotel, and a new guest -- proves the cherry on top of the sundae. Or maybe the grenade inside the gift box.

Either way, Disappearance at Clifton Hill, even if it's a tad too schematic for us to completely suspend our disbelief, certainly takes its place as one of the more inventive, compelling mysteries of late. From IFC Midnight and running a just-about-right 101 minutes, the movie opened theatrically last week and simultaneously arrived on VOD, as well. (That's Hannah Gross, above, in the role of Abby's kindly and very frustrated older sister.)

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