“River,” the first feature from Canadian helmer Jamie M. Dagg, comes billed in the press notes as the first North American film shot in Laos, and the location work — far more than the serviceable wrong-man (or right-man, wrong-reasons) plotting — is the main attraction. Notwithstanding an atmospheric backdrop and what looks like a grueling shoot, Dagg’s thriller is slow to get going and hampered by an inexpressive leading man. Without name recognition, the movie faces choppy waters commercially.
John Lake (Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald) is an American doctor working for an NGO in Laos. After an emergency operation goes poorly — in a vivid scene replete with bone-sawing and squirting blood — his boss, Dr. Stephanie Novella (Sara Botsford), gives him a pep talk: “You have to decide whether you want to be a part of this team.” Clearing his head with a downriver getaway, John, after getting seriously liquored up, stumbles across one of his fellow boozing tourists, who appears to have just raped a Laotian woman from the bar. A brawl ensues, and John ends up killing the man.
Running from this impulsive act, John soon finds that his wallet is missing. During an interrogation the next morning, he looks incredibly guilty with a black eye and the old left-my-passport-in-my-room routine. John realizes that the trouble runs even deeper when news reports indicate that the dead man is the son of an Australian senator. The film follows him on the lam, as he seeks help from the U.S. embassy — which offers only assistance with legal counsel — and colleagues, finally trying to cross into Thailand.
The second half works up more suspense than the first, partially because of the fascination of the procedural details of international law enforcement. There is also some appeal in watching a protag who, while looking like a movie star (Sutherland bears a slight resemblance to Seann William Scott here), is essentially feeling his way through an impossible situation one step at a time — stealing a car, say, but running out of gas.
Even so, Sutherland, hiding behind a beard and a stricken expression that he wears throughout the film, doesn’t provide the most charismatic point of entry. While there are glimmers of depth and a backstory to John (he speaks fluent French with locals), mostly he comes across as a sweaty placeholder for a character. And while it’s clear that John prioritizes chivalry above survival — this is emphasized at one point when the camera racks focus to a picture of Al Pacino as Serpico on the side of a bus — his actions in the movie’s finale stain credulity in the extreme.
According to production materials, Dagg shot with a 30-person crew from seven countries, and at its best, “River” allows you to feel as though you’re there — disoriented with the constant translations, stowed away on a river boat, or fascinated with the dusty scenery or the light glinting off the Mekong. Other, hackier stylistic choices (including the pounding drums of a score by Troum) make “River” feel unnecessarily generic.