TIFF19 REVIEW: Disappearance at Clifton Hill [2020]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes
    Release Date: February 28th, 2020 (Canada)
    Studio: Elevation Pictures / IFC Midnight
    Director(s): Albert Shin
    Writer(s): James Schultz & Albert Shin

We grew up there.

Every lie told takes us one step closer to burying the truth forever. While this often applies to current events like with Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” wherein a community is numbed to a boy’s warnings enough to let a tragedy occur under their noses, director Albert Shin and co-writer James Schultz reveal how it can also hold weight for the past and perhaps prove victim to the opposite effect. Because what happens when the truth comes before the lie? If a child tells you something awful and you dismiss it as an over-active imagination gone wild, when do they resign themselves to the fact that they’ll never be believed? When does frustration turn to a compulsion for hiding every dark truth beneath fiction?

For Abby (Tuppence Middleton) this downward spiral began in Niagara Falls, Canada close to the promenade that serves as the title of Shin’s film, Disappearance at Clifton Hill. It was there at age seven that she witnessed a kidnapping. Scared silent by what occurred, she froze when the opportunity to tell her parents arose because the assailants were still in her eyesight, driving away. She told her sister Laure (Hannah Gross) instead—a story that served as the first of many fanciful delusions the latter would have a front row seat to endure in the future. Abby probably grew to believe it was all a lie herself too until the death of their mother brought her back to take care of a property sale (the Rainbow Motel) in the will.

Two old photos put the incident in focus over a decade later: one family shot with little Abby looking off-camera and another of the road where the kidnappers and their car are in focus. As nostalgia for the defunct business mixes with the absence of direction as far as her life is concerned, the memory proves a mystery Abby is compelled to solve. Destiny soon interjects as the next couple of days bring key players atop this conspiratorial rabbit hole into her orbit. Local podcasting kook Walter Bell (David Cronenberg) has been researching the death of a boy who went missing around the time of Abby’s recollection and Charlie Lake (Eric Johnson)—the man buying her motel—just happens to be connected to that same boy’s entertainer parents.

While the child’s fate propels the plot (alongside twists and turns about his final days uncovered by Abby’s super-sleuthing via inadmissible chatter once the police are found uninterested thanks to an earlier run-in with Andy McQueen‘s Officer Singh), it should take a backseat on the intrigue scale. Shin and Schultz try their best to ensure that we willfully take stock in Abby’s own tragic life surrounded by black clouds of deflection (Dan Lett as their lawyer skirts the issue of whether their mother really wanted to sell) and deception (she can’t help but lie as easily as breathe when engaged in moments born from heightened anxiety). Just because we want to delve deeper into Abby and Laure’s relationship as a result of this, however, doesn’t mean we do.

That’s not to say it doesn’t eventually arrive, though. Clifton Hill‘s climax does a wonderful job exposing how this journey has always been about Abby distracting herself from her own troubles rather than putting evil people behind bars. (And the epilogue nicely bolsters the idea that lying compounds and multiplies whenever it’s about protecting victims from predators and predators from jail.) Shin and Schultz are merely having too good a time with their duplicitous characters like the enigmatic Magnificent Moulins (Paulino Nunes and Marie-Josée Croze) and their surly former employee Bev Mole (Elizabeth Saunders). It’s therefore easy to get lost in the outlandish situations Abby creates without remembering her psychology creating them is what matters most. We simply can’t resist Cronenberg and his crackpot disseminator of sage advice.

This does make the experience sufficiently entertaining from the start to finish, but it also renders Abby’s heartfelt, personal reckoning into a bit of an afterthought. Everything should melt away so we can acknowledge how it’s affected her first and foremost. That cathartic release shouldn’t just disappear as quickly as it arrived so we can get back to our regularly scheduled program of murder mystery. I do understand why this happens, however. The fact that everyone Abby talks to is also lying (or too self-confident in a truth to discover they believe a lie) enhances the moral of the story. Sometimes lies are good and sometimes the truth can cause irreparable harm. That’s why it’s crucial to not constantly cloud the two until fact and fiction become indiscernible.

Enough of that message thankfully shines through to ignore the clunky back and forth we experience between Abby’s health and preoccupation. It helps that Middleton is able to deftly maneuver from self-destructive fibs to those that ensure self-preservation. We know from the start that this is a troubled woman simultaneously dealing with guilt, remorse, and grief. So an activity as outrageous as a cold case that no one even knows about provides the perfect diversion. That its complexity and dead-ends also assist her rapid descent into bad patterns is thus an added bonus because the circumstantial evidence that gets allies trusting her again guarantees casualties once things implode. Truth is nothing but a construct after all—reality forever manipulated until reaching its agreed upon, majority-sanctioned end.

[1] Tuppence Middleton as “Abby” in Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] David Cronenberg as “Walter” in Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[3] Hannah Gross as “Laure” and Tuppence Middleton as “Abby” in Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

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