When her mother dies and leaves an estate, which includes a somewhat rundown motel, Abby (Tuppence Middleton) returns to her hometown of Niagara Falls in an attempt to settle matters both legal and personal, reuniting with her younger sister Laure (Hannah Gross). However, Abby’s initial intentions to build bridges with the one remaining part of her family are put under increasing strain as she is drawn to an event in her childhood.
Abby believes she witnessed the kidnapping of a teenage boy and feels that she must reconcile the ghosts of the past by investigating. Local diver and keen podcaster Walter Bell (David Cronenberg) has a long-held theory that powerful local family the Lakes have always known more about the crime that they let on, and that their current head of business Charlie (Eric Johnson) is more than a little suspicious. As Abby begins to gain the attention of the locals for all the wrong reasons and her own chequered past comes to light, is there anyone who can be trusted?
The tarnished glamour of Niagara Falls is an ideal setting for a twisty thriller in which the surface sheen of society barely covers a seedy underworld in which shadowy partnerships are made, silence is bought and no one is ever as they seem at first glance. In a tale spun by several unreliable narrators, it’s somehow fitting that the amateur sleuth on the case is arguably the most unreliable one of all.
It’s testament to Tuppence Middleton’s nuanced, outstanding performance that Abby, as flaky and downright frustrating as she is, is still someone to root for, even when she’s showing no remorse in her filter-free, brutally frank dealings with the case’s suspects or behaving horribly towards the patient and generally far too understanding Laure. Hannah Gross is excellent and conveys all of the vexation the comes with having a whirlwind such as her sister breezing into her hitherto settled life.
Abby’s shaky recollections of the past add another layer of mystery to the plot, almost to the point where the viewer may think there could actually be nothing to investigate other than our de facto heroine’s clearly troubled mind.
The inclusion of David Cronenberg is a wise casting choice, his naturally smart, eccentric presence bringing to mind the possibility that he could be one – or indeed, many – steps of our modern-day Miss Marple. Walter is a brilliant, if somewhat underused, character and Cronenberg is a delight every time he appears. Is his frustration at his inability to unravel the cold case genuine or is he sending Abby down several blind alleys in order to further obfuscate the truth?
Pleasingly, the script doesn’t have Abby transform into a terrific ‘tec. She’s intelligent, tenacious and uses her limited resources to the full but she makes mistakes, her drive to solve the historical riddle putting herself in potential danger chiming with her destructive personality. This is a woman who lives on the fringes of her own sanity and the opportunity to lead a double life as a fledgling righter of wrongs is as much to do with satisfying her own tangled psyche as it is to uncover the facts.
Thrillers of this ilk often lean heavily on their score to augment the atmosphere and this is no exception. Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty’s woozy, jazzy soundtrack may prove divisive and I can see why this aspect of the film may prove too obtrusive for some. Personally, I thought it underscored the shady on-screen action rather well even if Abby isn’t the archetypal hardboiled gumshoe of many a noir.
James Schultz and director Albert Shin’s script throws in more than its fair share of undesirables but the portrayal of their squalid lifestyles tends to shy away from caricature, showing them as everyday people whose need to keep from drowning in financial waters numbs them to the awfulness of their acts
Johnson’s oleaginous executive is the exception to this. He’s a textbook corporate snake but it’s interesting to see him try – and fail – to pull the wool over Abby’s eyes with his best shot at a nice guy act. Of course, he doesn’t know that Abby is wary of more or less everyone who crosses her path, which is a nice touch.
The resolution of Disappearance At Clifton Hill may not be to everyone’s taste, the answers to the myriad questions raised proving a good deal more straightforward than the increasingly convoluted plot shifts, particularly those of the middle section, would suggest. For me, the denouement wasn’t in any way at odds with the overall tone of the piece but those looking for a more sensational solution may be left a little cold.
As satisfied as I was with the conclusion in general, I had something of an issue regarding the last-minute hint at some form of redemption for a particularly unsavoury character as it seemed tacked on and somewhat unnecessary. At the same time, I can also see why the writers would want to tie up that particular strand of the story. Even so, I would rather have had the viewer make up their own mind about what did or didn’t happen.
A decent, downplayed thriller given a huge boost by what could well be a career-best performance from Middleton, Disappearance At Clifton Hill is sometimes too murky for its own good but its fascinating central character proves to be the glue which holds the whole enterprise together. The story doesn’t set up further adventures for our tyro P.I. but I would be more than happy to see Abby bringing her unique talents to bear on another whodunit.