A troubled young woman returns to her home town of Niagara Falls, where the memory of a long-ago kidnapping quickly ensnares her.
Abby is only seven when she spots a young boy, one eye gouged out, hiding in the woods near her home. He gestures her to be quiet, but a couple soon come to drag him away, throwing him into the boot of a car. Heading back to her family by the lakeside, she says nothing, though over the years mentions it to her sister Laure.
The adult Abby (Tuppence Middleton) is troubled; returning to Niagara Falls after the solitary death of her mother she movies back into her mum’s dilapidated motel, The Rainbow. Laure wants to sell to local businessman Charlie Lake (Eric Johnson), whose family has effectively owned the town for three generations.
Meanwhile Abby starts to investigate the disappearing boy. Soon she has a name: Alex Moulin. Her investigative methods mix modern life and old school. Along with googling it’s microfiche at the local library; a VHS video of Alex’s parents, local stage magicians the Magnificent Moulins; and the help of local diving expert and conspiracy theorist podcaster, Walter (David Cronenberg).
There’s an air of timelessness to Disappearance At Clifton Hill that its small town location bolsters. Always gripping, its twists and turns are realistic because they are rooted in human fallibility; the uniformly excellent performances tease out the complexities of its characters.
Director and co-writer Albert Shin apparently based his film on an incident in his own Niagara Falls childhood when he thought he’d witnessed a kidnapping. Here just such an incident is really the jumping off point into an enjoyable noir about truth. (Residents and businesses in Shin’s real-life location apparently weren’t happy with filming; reading about Clifton Hill, I was struck by mention of a couple of main landowners owning the strip, and a Comfort Inn demolished to make way for more tourist attractions.)
Clifton Hill – filled with funfairs, bars and casinos – is a supporting cast member for sure. There’s a slumped-shoulders feel to the place behind the superficial glitz, that it’s being held back even as it is forced to do anything it can for the tourist dollar. Like many a tourist mecca it’s dull for anyone who lives there, its bright lights and cheap delights a barricade for visitors between them and the reality of daily life.
Gradually, Shin reveals that Clifton Hill is about what truth means to us. Walter doesn’t want inconvenient truths to disrupt his narrative about the town, honed over decades. The Moulins hide street magic sleight-of-hand behind their glitzy stage extravaganzas. And Abby, it turns out, is a liar, though by the time we discover this equally inconvenient truth for us we are so invested in her she’s easy to defend.
This is a hugely enjoyable small town thriller which treats its neon tropes with loving care: missing kids, an evil local businessman, the smell of provincial greasepaint, a dilapidated motel (“why doesn’t she put the lights on!” I wanted to scream every time Abby wandered around its faded rooms, the darkness creeping towards her, the list of enemies she’d made growing longer daily). There’s even a diner dedicated to UFOs and aliens.
Niagara Falls lies on the border between Canada and the US, an area divided but close by – and signifying Abby’s moving between truth and lies. She even steals her sister’s passport to cross the bridge into America one night, to watch the Magnificent Moulins’ stage show and interrogate them afterwards.
Middleton is terrific as the increasingly ambiguous Abby. Branching out from desk research to amateur detective she’s inordinately pleased with herself, as if her detecting is more important that the outcome; though actually she’s a natural, chameleon-like and tenacious. (Cronenberg’s Walter is similar, delighted at his own cleverness whenever he mentions his podcast Over The Falls.)
There’s a side to Abby that’s almost sly, subtly unveiled in the midst of this heartbreaking story that bobs around in a sludgy lake of small-town sleaze. Both she and Walter are drawn together by their supreme belief in their own constructed narratives about the town, the disappearing boy and themselves. Walter, meanwhile, has been gifted that most unwelcome present to a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist, an actual potential conspiracy but not the one he wanted.
The score had me laughing; as Abby falls victim to distraction techniques both accidental and deliberate, it moves from ’50s and ’60s pop to what I can only describe as 80s/90s TV amateur detective music. Suddenly it’s all very Jessica Fletcher.
The hardest lies to unravel are those that are partly true, and Shin works that to perfection. Mrs Moulin even stuns Abby, outplayed throughout their conversation, by blatantly declaring some of what they have admitted to her is true and some a lie.
The women who live here are easy to dismiss as stereotypes until we get to know them, when their ambiguity becomes apparent. For a while any of them could be victim or con artist: determined investigator Abby, bereaved mother Mrs Moulin, and Bev, the Moulins’ ex-employee who seems to have something to do with Alex’s disappearance.
And then comes the ending. At first it feels almost tacked on, but it’s more than a last minute switcharound. Instead it’s the equivalent of surviving bumping over the Falls in a barrel but then rather than ending up in a pool of water crashing into an unexpected rock.
Disappearance At Clifton Hill will be released across all major streaming and download platforms from 20 July, with a physical release following on 3 August.
Watch the trailer now (or scroll down for the ending…):
Okay after all those arrows you should only be here if you want to be. Abby is found with her sister’s passport trying to get back into Canada. It turns out Abby has recently spent 18 months in Phoenix, Arizona claiming to have amnesia. When she was discovered, she was banned from the US. Her mum had to take out a loan against the motel to help her.
Bev’s disabled husband Gerry, who she has been mistreating, is freed by the police, and Bev is arrested. Gerry tells the police that Bev was instrumental in Alex Moulin’s death, acting on behalf of Charlie Lake’s father, who was protecting his abusive son. Charlie Lake is arrested.
Later Abby is working in a different motel in the town and in walks a man with one eye, who tells her that Charlie Lake is innocent and actually saved him. The last shot – after he has walked to his room – is Abby reflected in a mirror…
(There’s actually a huge giveaway in the IMDB cast list: “One-eyed man”.)