It might be repped as the first North American film shot in Laos, but narrative-wise there’s nothing pioneering about RIVER, Jamie M. Dagg’s careering, evocatively lensed debut, which tells a tale as old as the hills. John Lake (Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald and in the middle of a banner year with HELLIONS and HYENA ROAD, also at this year’s TIFF) is a doctor working for an NGO in Laos, a good man who makes one wrong move and must suffer the ballooning consequences. Lake is introduced amputating somebody’s leg with a bone saw. That grit carries over to the entire film, which takes the shape of one long, grimly realistic chase.
On a two-week furlough imposed on him by his superior (Sara Botsford), Lake watches two Australian men (David Soncin and Aidan Gillett) enter a bar presided over by the Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm (in a more benevolent mood here than he was in Nicolas Winding Refn’s ONLY GOD FORGIVES). The Australians sit down at the table of two local girls and begin to ply them with alcohol. Dagg and editor Duff Smith cut between an impressionistic blur of spirits being imbibed and Lake taking it all in with increasingly evident disapprobation. Finally he tells one of the men that the girls have had enough. It’s clear all is not going to end well, a fact underscored by the foreboding score from Berlin duo Troum, whose ambient hum sounds fittingly like the nerve-frayed soundscape of a (waking) nightmare.
Running underneath the entire film, that ominous pulse breaks out into a drumbeat whenever Lake is in peril, which is regularly after he goes on the lam from the Laos authorities, accused of sexual assault and the murder of an Australian senator’s son. The incident leading to these charges, in which Lake comes across the aftermath of a rape and intervenes, is staged with convincing messiness. He gets back to his bungalow bloody and bruised, not to mention hysterical; made more so by the discovery he’s left his wallet at the scene of the crime. Lake’s verbalization of that fact – “You gotta be fucking kidding! My wallet!” – is one of the few moments in which the director’s script slips into unnecessary hand-holding.
Shooting almost entirely outdoors with natural light, Director of Photography Adam Marsden’s camera is constantly on the move, tracking Lake as he flees by foot, by car and by boat down the Mekong, eventually swimming across to Thailand after he discovers the US Embassy in Laos unable to protect him. Sutherland is superbly frayed, seeming to get appreciably thinner and more shell-like every minute. RIVER ends with relief, followed by a reversal that’s the last thing you expect from this unvarnished, unsentimental tale of self-preservation: an act of quietly powerful heroism.
John Lake is the rebuttal to all those Graham Greene Yanks in over their heads in South-East Asia: he might be a patsy, but he’s no clown.