'Clifton Hill': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Elevation Pictures
Tuppence Middleton in 'Clifton Hill'
High on well-crafted atmosphere, low on suspense.

Albert Shin's mystery drama stars Tuppence Middleton as a young woman investigating a disturbing childhood memory and David Cronenberg as a podcaster who provides key clues.

In the psychological drama Clifton Hill, things are at least as weird as they appear — or are they?

For his third feature, filmmaker Albert Shin (In Her Place) conjures a lurid aura from a setting he knows well: the city of Niagara Falls, where his parents initially settled when they moved to Canada. Unfolding during the renowned tourist spot's off season — or, as the locals more evocatively call it, low season — the movie abounds in a faded-bordering-on-seedy ambiance. With at least two unreliable narrators, and one of them played by horror maestro David Cronenberg, the film travels a decidedly off-center path in its quest to unravel a decades-old crime.

The protagonist propelling that quest is Abby — at once tousled, clear-eyed and possibly deranged — who returns to her hometown after her mother's death and becomes a Nancy Drew of sorts. Tuppence Middleton (Sense8) plays the part with a hard-to-read mix of openness and reticence that keeps the audience, as well as other characters, off-balance.

But for all its vividly detailed eccentricity, the movie, like Abby, connects the dots rather too easily. As Clifton Hill digs deeper into exceedingly sordid stuff, it doesn't dish up the kind of aha moments or chilling frissons that would lift the story from clever contrivance — until a final, delicious twist pulls the rug out from under this richly atmospheric but not always convincing tale.

The film's title, unexplained in the screenplay, refers to a tourist-oriented section of the Canadian side of Niagara Falls that's devoted to such inexplicably reliable moneymaking attractions as video arcades and wax museums. The feeling is indeed snap-crackle-pop creepy, inhabiting a blurry intersection of touristy schlock, historical legend and family tragedy.

As the present-day action opens, Abby is back on home turf after vague doings in Toronto and Vancouver, and quickly gets busy on two fronts: She wants to save her late mother's run-down Rainbow Inn Motel from the wrecking ball of a hotshot developer (Eric Johnson), and, more urgently, she's determined to find the truth behind a troubling memory, one that has been reawakened by her return to the area. On a fishing trip with her parents when she was 7, Abby witnessed the kidnapping of a one-eyed boy.

Abby's younger, more conventional sister, Laure (Hannah Gross), doesn't care about the motel; she scoffs at Abby's insistence that "this is our legacy." As to the kidnapping, she flat-out accuses Abby of lying, for reasons that screenwriters James Schultz and Shin gradually bring to light — or halfway out of the shadows, anyway.

The first signals of Abby's instability arrive, tantalizingly, during a bar scene when she picks up a Niagara newcomer (Andy McQueen). Her come-on patter includes lines she recently overheard between strangers. And after bringing her new friend to a florid room at the Rainbow, she blurts out the dubious but mood-shattering assertion that she's a virgin, only to deny it in the next instant. Beyond the dialogue, this push-pull pattern of luring people close only to shove them away is one that Middleton cunningly conveys, wordlessly, throughout the film.

Even though the story takes place in a sizable city, it has a small-town feel (not for nothing does Orson Welles' The Stranger appear on a TV screen). For starters, Abby's would-be one-night stand turns out to be the same newbie cop who will take her report, 25 years after the fact, on the crime she saw by the river. But it's not just a matter of familiar faces wherever you turn; sordid secrets and big money are the other inevitable aspects of the drama's small-town vibe.

Through his casino and other properties, Johnson's faux-glib Charles Lake III — who intends to replace the Rainbow with a glow-in-the-dark paintball maze, as any visionary corporate kingpin would — seemingly employs half the town. Among his minions are Laure (rising in the growth field of surveillance supervision) and her husband, Marcus (Noah Reid), who's much kinder and more receptive than she is when it comes to her sister's hunt for facts.

Abby's search will put her in touch with a collection of cartoonish characters — cartoonish with an underground-comics sensibility, but ultimately two-dimensional nonetheless. They include Cronenberg's Walter Bell, the surviving member of a family of diving daredevils. He still trawls the river for mementos and corpses, is the self-appointed local historian, never misses a chance to plug his Over the Falls podcast, and has long been deemed a wacko by the police. But still, he has info to share — specifically, dirt on the dangerously hammy Magnificent Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes), the low-rent husband-and-wife version of Siegfried & Roy who have come to occupy a prominent place in Abby's investigation. When Abby tracks down another couple (Elizabeth Saunders and Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) who played a pivotal role in the one-eyed boy's fate, the parade of caricatures and weirdos, and the drama itself, reach the breaking point of credulity.

But Shin has a sharp eye for local color and also for the otherworldly among the everyday. His use of the real-life Flying Saucer Diner as a key location whimsically combines the two impulses. He has set his story on a border between countries but also on a border between states of mind. The flair for vintage re-creations — family snapshots, library microfilm and a perfectly cheesy promotional documentary on those Magnificent Moulins — that he and his collaborators bring to the material is crucial to a story that's fundamentally concerned with excavating the past.

Designers Chris Crane and Judith Ann Clancy contribute ace work that ranges from lived-in clutter to tawdry fun-house glare, from the nondescript workaday to the dinner-theater tacky, all of it crisply captured in Catherine Lutes' moody but unfussy camerawork. Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty's strong score heightens the movie's corrosive mystique with a jazz-inflected cacophony of musical moans and stutters.

Disappointingly, the revelations in Clifton Hill, as disturbing as they are, are more told than felt. But between its opening image of a fish dangling on a hook (a stand-in for the audience?) and its flawlessly underplayed final moment, it casts a one-of-a-kind spell.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production companies: Elevation Pictures and Rhombus Media, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Ontario Creates and CBS Films
Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, David Cronenberg, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Aaron Poole, Eric Johnson, Marie-Josée Croze, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Mikayla Radan
Directors: Albert Shin
Screenwriters: James Schultz, Albert Shin
Producers: Fraser Ash, Kevin Krikst
Executive producers: Niv Fichman, Adrian Love, Omar Chalabi
Director of photography: Catherine Lutes
Production designer: Chris Crane
Costume designer: Judith Ann Clancy
Editor: Cam McLauchlin
Composers: Alex Sowinski, Leland Whitty
Casting directors: Deirdre Bowen, Pam Dixon, Tina Gerussi

100 minutes