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River, the feature film debut of director Jamie M.Dagg, is a chase movie with a solid lead performance that starts off very promisingly but fails to maintain any sense of tension throughout.
John Lake (Rossif Sutherland) is an American volunteer doctor in Laos who intervenes in the sexual assault of a young woman, only to become a fugitive wanted for murder. Things quickly spiral out of control as John find himself hunted across the country.
River was reminiscent to the horror movie Green Room early on, in the sense that both movies featured main characters making decidedly stupid decisions that genuinely felt like something real people might do if they were in similar situations. Humans are irrational beings by nature and high-pressure situations can really bring that out. Even a doctor, someone who is trained to remain calm and focused can slip up and succumb to panic and desperation, which is exactly what happens to John Lake.
Lake becomes a fugitive as a result of a series of progressively worse decisions that make him seem a lot more guilty than he actually is, but every mistake he makes feels like something that a terrified man would do. Sutherland does a great job of capturing that everyman sense of dread and anxiety, which makes Lake instantly sympathetic and worth caring about. The opening sets up who John Lake is and how he got into this mess effectively, and those early scenes of him trying to run away from the scene of the crime as the noose tightens around his neck are easily the most tense and exciting in the whole movie.
The problem with River is that it quickly becomes clear that John has absolutely no plausible way to get away from this. The narrative makes his circumstances so desperate that it’s clear that his capture is not matter of “if”, as much as it is a matter of “when” – which, unfortunately, instantly drains most of the latter half of the movie of any real sense of tension or stakes. There is no safe haven for John Lake, no one-armed man for him to go after to prove his innocence – there’s just running. Running as far away as he can, with no clear goal or purpose and that quickly becomes dull and monotonous.
It also makes the bait-and-switch ending, which could have made for an interesting twist, fall absolutely flat. It’s a shame, because River shows a lot of promise and technical competence – a few scenes rely a bit too much on shaky cam to get their point across, but apart from that, it’s well directed and could have made for a good chase story.
River is a great example of how a single critical narrative flaw can bring down an entire movie that could have otherwise been pretty decent. Still, it’s a good first effort for director Jamie M.Dagg.
Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment will release River on DVD and Digital Download on the 18th of July, 2016.