The notion of Niagara Falls as more than a tourist trap — as a place where people live and labor into the off-season, when the water is “turned down” and diverted to a hydroelectric plant — is the most resonant aspect of “Clifton Hill,” a Canadian noir that owes more than a little to the municipal conspiracies of “Chinatown.” When the theme restaurants and glow-in-the-dark putt-putt courses are emptied out or closed down altogether, the remaining residents are left with the dark secrets and shadow histories that course through the town — and sometimes sit at the bottom of the gorge. Director Albert Shin confronts just such a mystery when a Niagara Falls exile returns to reexamine her past, but he’s more skilled at suggesting foul play than laying out all the convoluted details. The deeper the film goes, the more it loses its grip.
Though “Clifton Hill” likely won’t travel far beyond its side of the Niagara Falls border, it does feature the delightful novelty of David Cronenberg, a national treasure, turning up as a local podcaster. The director’s fans will surely cherish the sight of him doing tacky sponsor reads (“And if you ask me, that’s a deal to swim upstream for…”) or asking listeners to rate and review his podcast to gain more prominence. But as the host of a local history show, his voice is at the heart of what Shin is trying to express about the unseen, nefarious forces that control a place like Niagara Falls and occasionally victimize the innocent to maintain power.
Working an overcast atmosphere that suggests the worlds of Victor Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise” or Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Last Resort,” Shin follows Abby (Tuppence Middleton) as she returns to her hometown after her mother’s death. She and her estranged sister Laure (Hannah Gross) have inherited a shuttered motel called the Rainbow Inn that their mother had conveniently sold to Charles Lake III (Eric Johnson), a prominent developer, right before her death. For Laure, the sale is a quick-and-easy way to divvy up their inheritance, but Abby harbors dreams of reopening the inn and questions whether Lake is truly on the level.
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But the mystery Abby really wants to solve is from her childhood, when she thought she witnessed the abduction of a one-eyed boy near the river where her family had gone on a fishing trip. Her memories are vague and her views obscure, but a couple of old photos reveal, “Blowup”-style, that she may be on to something. While the authorities brush off her amateur sleuthing, Abby locks into an old story about a popular husband-and-wife magician act that had lost their son to a suspected suicide. At the same time, the story behind her curdled relationship with her sister sheds some doubt on her reliability as a truth-teller, much less a truth-seeker.
The “Chinatown” connections to “Clifton Hill” are readily apparent, right down to the question of how city officials manage the water supply. But where screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski’s film gets richer when their private detective works a case into a conspiracy bigger than he can handle, Shin’s film gets tangled up in its own web. The ins and outs of Abby’s investigation, and how her past is tied to the present, are not cleanly articulated when it matters the most, and concerns about her psychological stability are mostly a distraction.
There’s a great movie to be rescued from the murk, however, suggested by scenes of Abby wandering through the city’s vacant streets and attractions, or picking through the broken dream of her mother’s business. Shin’s Niagara Falls has human casualties that are shattered into pieces in the gorge, but there are quieter, more personal tragedies that cut against a destination that’s designed, at times mercilessly, to make people happy. His film leaves a vivid impression without quite leaving a mark.