Directed by Jamie M. Dagg.
Starring Rossif Sutherland, Sara Botsford, Ted Atherton and Aidan Gillett.
Working for an NGO in Laos, volunteer doctor John (Rossif Sutherland) is devastated when a patient dies on the operating table. Ordered to take some leave, he decides to explore the country and heads south. When he comes across the aftermath of a rape, he gets into a fight with the perpetrator and becomes the prime suspect in the man’s murder. He needs to get out of the country. Fast.
The innocent abroad when everything goes wrong. A familiar idea, with Midnight Express one of the best examples. So what do you do if you’re half way around the world, you only speak a few words of the language and you’re accused of murder? If you’re John, the doctor at the centre of Jamie M. Dagg’s River, you go on the run.
It’s no spoiler to say that he is actually responsible for the death of that fellow tourist. They’d met in a bar where John watched the other man ply a local girl with large quantities of alcohol. As he makes his way back to his rented room, he comes across both of them again, but this time it’s obvious that the woman’s been raped. The men fight and the other tourist ends up dead.
Canadian director Jamie M. Dagg’s first feature shows promise but there’s some way to go yet – down the road, along the river, wherever. But it does tackle certain aspects with confidence and conviction. The whole idea of being a stranger in a foreign land for one, where you only speak a smattering of the local language and where everybody is charming to you – until you’re accused of a crime. John loses all his money, he just about manages to hang on to his passport and everybody is after him. Worse still, he sticks out like a sore thumb: quite apart from his verbal limitations, he’s big, lumbering and Caucasian. He may not be your average tourist, as he was a doctor with an NGO, but his dream break has still gone horribly sour and shown him a different side of Laos. He gets closer to its underbelly when he accepts a ride from a couple of dubious locals driving a souped-up motor. We never find out what they’re up to, and they never lay a finger on John, but they still frighten the hell out of him.
There’s an air of reality about the film – this could happen to anybody – but the director doesn’t infuse it with enough tension. It has its moments, including those dodgy dudes in the car, but they’re too few and far between and others intended to get the adrenalin flowing simply doesn’t. The overall tone is flat and Sutherland isn’t powerful enough to take it to the next level. He’s good enough, evoking sufficient sympathy to keep your attention, but doesn’t have the strength or on-screen presence to bring the piece truly to life.
Dagg’s background is in short films and this would have responded well to that discipline, making a nicely taut 40 minuter. Curiously, he’s not tackled documentaries yet, nor has his cinematographer, Adam Marsden, but the camera style is very much in that vein, adding to that sense of reality.
What could have been a nerve jangler is disappointingly short on bite or genuine thrills. It’s a personal nightmare but, in the hands of Dagg, one that isn’t shared as it should be with the audience.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★