River is an energetic thriller set in the exotic surroundings of Laos – the first North American movie to be shot there – written and directed by newcomer Jamie M. Dagg. This hour and a half long chase might be a bit too ordinary of a story with not much room for identification, but it does raise interesting questions about (in)justice and goodwill.
The film tells the tale of an American volunteer doctor running from local authorities after an alcohol-fueled night ending in violence in the south of Laos. John Lake (Rossif Sutherland) is adviced to take some time off when things turn overwhelming in the operating room and he refuses to follow his superior’s order. This already foreshadows his controversial attitude towards rules and gives a sense of suppressed aggression circling in him.
Once on his prescribed holiday, he spends the night in a bar, observing two Australian tourists feeding local girls with alcohol. After warning them to stop and a reasonable amount of booze consumed on his part as well, he heads home just to come upon what looks like the sexual assault of one of the girls. Some time later he is in a bathroom, wet and bloody, trying to recollect his intervention, when he realizes his wallet is missing. The vocalization of this seems to be uncalled-for and breaks the erratic dynamic of events.
After a slow start, River continues in a blurry haze of running. Dr Lake is suspected of murder and rape so he is trying to flee, acting on impulse, getting more and more desperate. What comes next is an incredible amount of luck during a tense, but not particularly interesting chase. All in all, Lake gets caught but it still looks like he is going to get away with everything, until his conscience finally catches up with him. Even though the story doesn’t really give us a chance to identify with John – it feels like there’s much more to this doctor than what we actually see – it makes us think about how goodwill, justice, and law relate to one another.
Rossif Sutherland gives a really strong performance as Dr John Lake – nice and friendly first, troubled and confused later. His portrayal of the man who’s guilty and terrified but still believes in the rightness of his act – there’s a hint of different judicial systems in different countries – is spot on, he carries the movie on his back. He makes his own rules, follows his own laws and that’s what makes River an interesting story.
Besides the acting and the moral questions River has some other strengths as well. Even though the whole setting of the film is quite dark, Adam Marsden cinematographer made sure we get some beautiful, dreamy shots. The music is also worth a mention – alongside the scenery of Laos, it created the strong atmosphere of a far-away place.
Jamie M. Dagg’s River is not exceptional, but a decent first feature with a strong lead performance from Rossif Sutherland. It really makes us think about laws and the differences in what we hold ourselves accountable for. Even further, how long can we go in deciding what’s wrong and what’s right?
River arrives on DVD and download in the UK on Monday, July 18th, 2016