Niagara Falls is a tourist trap built on something wholly awesome and uncontainable by human will, and the resulting contrast is home to necessary eccentricities. It’s an alternately impressive and eclectic sight and one you’d think more films would take advantage of, but while there are plenty of movies that swing by for a scene or two few actually set the bulk of their action amid the neon-drenched streets atop the thundering falls. Disappearance at Clifton Hill takes that opening and delivers a just odd enough slow burn of a mystery that sinks its claws in and refuses to let go.
Abby (Tuppence Middleton) saw something in the woods by the falls when she was just eight years-old. A boy with one eye hides between the trees before being grabbed, knocked unconscious, and tossed into a car trunk. Young Abby’s mind can’t quite grasp what she’s witnessed, and years later she’s still having trouble believe her. That lack of trust has blossomed, though, leading to an estranged relationship with her sister Laure (Hannah Gross) that’s renewed when Abby returns to Niagara Falls following the death of their mother. The kitschy Rainbow Motel is their’s now, but while Laure wants to sell it as mom intended Abby’s not too sure. She takes up residence there, and as the days and nights pass she finds herself drawn to the mystery of the boy she saw kidnapped years ago.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a wonderfully moody puzzle box of a film, and Middleton is fantastic as the fascinatingly unreliable protagonist searching for the truth behind a child abduction. Director/co-writer Albert Shin (along with co-writer James Schultz) crafts a surprising, grim, heartfelt, and morbidly humorous little film that beats to its own waterlogged drum.
Part of its twisted charm comes in the motley crew assembled around Abby starting with a SCUBA certified David Cronenberg (playing a conspiracy nut named Walter) who spends half his screen time pimping his podcast. He’s a dry delight and joined in Abby’s dreary new reality by local millionaire tycoon Charlie Lake (Eric Johnson), a near one night stand who turns out to be a disgruntled cop, a pair of local celebs known as the Magnificent Moulins, and others. Each character adds a piece of information and a new glimpse into the off-season world of Clifton Hill, but the dark heart remains Abby.
She’s drawn into this decades old mystery with no connection beyond her own questionable memory, but rather than be some straitlaced protagonist from a Harlan Coben novel heroically unraveling sordid details about a past crime she’s actually something of a question mark herself. Abby’s past and present shift with her needs, and we witness her tell tall tales without batting an eye, and the more lies that viewers catch her in the more they’ll wonder what lies they’re missing. It makes for a fascinating lead character, and that only intensifies when it comes clear that the pieces she’s picking up from others are equally conflicting.
The core mystery here is an engaging one, and it dips occasionally into some grisly territory, but Shin and Schultz manage to keep things from turning too grim with a misty sheen of humor. Rather than aim for big laughs, the film finds beats that turn slightly with a welcome absurdity — it’s not Coen brothers-like shenanigans, but it’s enough to keep viewers on their toes as the story unfolds. Middleton’s performance is key to much of it working, too, as she’s our shaky guide through a tale standing equally on truths and lies. She’s coming to terms with her mother’s death, this unsolved mystery, and her own state of mind, and she might just be in trouble if she can’t find the light amid the rain-soaked darkness.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a welcome little mystery that takes familiar ingredients, shakes them up, and delivers something that might not involve a mystery at all. There’s a slow burn nature to it, but it’s a journey worth taking as while the water never stops moving the truth has to land somewhere eventually. Or does it?