Disappearance at Clifton Hill review — Niagara-set mystery grounded in place

Directed by Albert Shin | Written by Shin and James Schultz | 100 min | ▲▲▲△△| Netflix

You don’t see a lot of moody detective stories in the cinema anymore. That’s because TV has more or less perfected the genre — a good, twisty script and a star performer is a formula that attracts eyeballs again and again without a lot of budget needed.

In order for a potboiler to work on the big screen it’s got to have something extra, something special. Disappearance at Clifton Hill‘s pleasures are modest, but it qualifies — it should provide enough style and smarts to work for genre fans. And style is something you don’t see enough of in Canadian cinema, where budgetary restraints often demand feature films take on a Dogme-style kitchen-sink realism. This picture has production value to spare.

Abby (Tuppence Middleton, with no sign of her Downton British accent) is a troubled woman from Niagara Falls. When she was a little girl she thought she saw a boy abducted. Years later, following trouble in her personal life in the big city, she heads home. Her mother has died, leaving a dilapidated motel on the edge of town. Abby has both an estranged sister (Hannah Gross), who stayed home and got a job at the casino, and a deeply restless intellect with not nearly enough to keep her busy.

She finds her mother’s photos, which provide a clue to the missing boy, and soon she’s messing in the lives of the heir (Eric Johnson) to a local real estate fortune, a pair of dime store magicians (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes), and a conspiracy theorist with a podcast (actor/director David Cronenberg, convincingly nutty).

Albert Shin — who co-wrote the story based on his own memory of something he saw in Niagara when he was a kid — capably turns off-season Niagara into sleazy, neon-splashed playground, not a far cry from what Bob Rafelson did with Atlantic City in his classic ’70s drama, The King Of Marvin Gardens. The location’s echoes of decaying, late-stage capitalism go a long way to ground the story in place, which is half the battle.

Then to have a rising star doing good work — Middleton is just askew enough to suggest an unreliable narrator — along with solid support from veterans like Cronenberg and Croze, stirs a surprising, slightly bitter cinematic brew.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.