TIFF: ‘River’ is a nightmarish, entertaining thriller

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Cinema has long been a great tool for cross-cultural discourse, with co-productions between national film industries becoming increasingly prevalent. One such example is Jamie M. Dagg’s debut feature River. In this new thriller, the Canadian filmmaker crafts a vacation from hell, as an American doctor goes through a nightmarish experience in Laos and Thailand.

The film begins on the Laotian mainland, where John Lake (Rossif Sutherland) is conducting a high-pressure surgery, seemingly the latest of many. But when John fails to properly manage this particularly stressful situation, his supervisor sends him on a mandatory leave of absence to refocus. So John decides to spend his time on a remote island in the south of the country, but his peaceful trip is interrupted when he witnesses an incident of sexual assault. Acting on instinct, he intervenes and fatally wounds the perpetrator. The situation escalates quickly however, as John soon becomes a wanted fugitive for both the rape and the murder.

River is a pure thriller through and through, ratcheting up the intensity the moment John makes his first escape some 20 minutes in. Indeed, all the right elements are in place to keep you engaged and riveted. For starters, the film is edited with precision, maintaining a breakneck pace throughout. The cinematography is also very vivid, giving a rich sense of place as our hero runs through a variety locations. Most importantly, the film is action-packed, setting up constant obstacles and terrible misfortunes for John to overcome, as well as unforeseen plot turns to keep you on the edge of your seat.

And through the dynamic performace from Rossif Sutherland, the pressure of his predicament feels viscerally real. Sutherland displays John’s feelings on his face like an open book – to the character’s detriment – giving us an acute sense of his fear, exasperation and guilt. Tasked with carrying the entire film on his shoulders with a physically and emotionally demanding performance, he proves that he’s just as talented as his more well-known family members, namely Donald and Keifer Sutherland, his father and brother respectively. As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Admittedly, Dagg’s screenplay fails to explore its themes with much depth, but ultimately, it hardly matters in the long run. River still gives you a full adrenaline rush through the mere thrill of its chase. So if you’re looking for a game-changing thriller, then you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you enjoy the simple thrill of someone going through highly dramatized hell for 90 minutes, then River is a film for you.