Things can spiral completely out of control with a simple decision. This is what the new Canadian made thriller River is predicated on as we watch a dirty and panicked Rossif Sutherland run through the country of Laos as a wanted murder suspect. With a very embedded style of filmmaking, director and writer Jamie M. Dagg puts you right up close and alongside his main character as he frantically tries to escape to some kind of help and understanding of his story in a foreign country. Will this flopping fish out of the pond slip back into the water or right into fire?
The opens on John (Sutherland), a volunteer doctor working in a non-governmental organization in Laos, treating a patient with liver damage when a truckful of critically injured locals comes into the clinic. John ends up making a quick decision on one of the patients that ends up costing them their lives and he takes it very hard, reacting angrily to his superior. This ends up prompting a request that he take a couple weeks off and take a little vacation.
John decides that he will travel twelve hours down to the Mekong River for some rest and relaxation in a little shack along the shore. When having some drinks at the local bar, he encounters a couple of Australians giving excessive amounts of alcohol to a couple of local girls. Feeling valiant in his drunkenness, John raises some concerns and the group soon leaves. Hours later on his walk back to his place, John comes across one of the Aussies and one girl laying on the beach. On closer inspection, John sees the girl has been sexually assaulted and intervenes, leading to the death of the Aussie.
This is where common sense would intervene for a lot of people. The thoughts are obviously panicked and the emotional impact is something I have no comprehension of nor would I ever want it, but would I dispose of the body and run? I’d really like to think that I’d have the wherewithal to know that I wasn’t in the wrong and I could prove my complacency in the incident. Our main character of this story obviously has other thoughts.
One thing that is made very clear before the situation even comes up is that John the doctor is a very headstrong person in his decision making, both professionally and in his everyday life. His choice with the villager while he was behind that surgical mask turned deadly and his desperate follow through on sending this Australian’s dead body down the river and trying to skip town could prove absolutely suicidal. To any authority, this is an obvious admission of any sort of guilty. Whether he did it or not, his cause looks shady.
The main thread of this thriller lies directly in the language barrier between almost all of the people of Laos and John, plus his own deep paranoia of being caught leading him into some iffy situations. One scene in particular, he is picked up by an American hot rod with two younger occupants. Before dropping John off in town, the make a stop and it’s unclear what transpires as our lead isn’t privy to what happens either. Was he just part of a drug deal or perspective muling? Who knows but it’s a pretty tense situation.
Besides this piece of the film, John’s escape is pretty repetitive. Once he’a bribed a local fisherman to get him out of his river side vacation spot, without most of his belongings, you’re basically counting the minutes until he gets nabbed. The audience knows it going to happen, it’s just how long is Dagg going to draw out this story before we get resolution, if there is any. I’m going to say a mild spoiler here and say that, unfortunately, there really is no clear resolution which is definitely a weakness in the film.
One thing I will praise River for is its ability to rise above some of the stigma suffered by Canadian films. This film looks polished and with a guerilla independent style that is found with a lot of international film. It excels in just simple scenery along different backgrounds in Laos and Thailand, really playing John’s nightmare against a exotic and striking atmosphere. It’s one of the more compelling things in the film.
With all being said on both sides, the reality of River is it’s nothing that will catch very much attention. How many times have we seen an American get into trouble in a foreign country and have to seek some sort of escape from it. Heck, the Dowdle brothers did it just last year with the Owen Wilson thriller No Escape. It seems tourist cautionary tales are a dime a dozen and you need to find new and inventive ways to tell this story or they all sort of blur together. The only way I feel I can separate No Escape and River is that the latter was a bit better but nothing to go crazy over. I give it a two and a half out of five.