Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"River carries the viewer along at a thundering pace as deeper currents gradually find their way to the surface."

We first meet John (Rossif Sutherland) when he's trying to revive a patient. A young American doctor working in Laos, he's full of hope and ambition and the will to create change, but his patient is beyond help. Ignoring his supervisor, he just keeps going. Meanwhile, other patients who could be saved are waiting to come in, but he can only think about what's in front of him. It's a way of thinking that, in places like this, nobody can afford.

Afterwards, on strict orders to take a break and get his head together, John goes south. He take a room in a sleepy island town, enjoys a quiet drink with the proprietor of the local bar. But on his way home, he finds a drunken local woman lying unconscious on a beach, where she has clearly bee assaulted by the young Australian man beside her. With that same narrow focus, John pummels the man. Unfortunately, in his rage, he does it too hard and for too long. Worse still, when the woman wakes up to find him tending to her, she assumes that he is her assailant.

What follows is a frantic journey as John - who has also lost his wallet at the scene - tries to escape the mess he has found himself in. Even before learning that the dead man had powerful connections, he distrusts the Lao authorities, realising that he has no way of proving what really happened. But for a tall white man, hiding isn't easy, and with more and more people looking for him and practically no-one he can turn to for help, he finds himself in an increasingly desperate situation.

River was produced by Todd Brown, who made The Raid and its sequel, and it has the same relentless energy, carrying the viewer along at a thundering pace as deeper currents gradually find their way to the surface. It's a tremendous feature debut for writer/director Jamie M Dagg, who maintains expert control throughout, building up tension in the quieter scenes and letting lose in scenes of headlong flight. So compelling is the immediacy of the narrative that its complexity emerges only slowly, building up to a conclusion whose power emerges from something quite different.

Dagg is acutely aware of place and of the context of that place, with the legacy of colonialism and the wars that have scarred the region echoing through the story. John is a man who seems aware of his privilege and, through his work, appears to be trying to do the right thing, but he faces existential as well as physical crisis at the loss of his white saviour status, gradually coming to realise what it means to have taken a life, and having to ask himself who and what else he is willing to compromise in order to survive. He is forced to face some of his lingering prejudices and discover that people he admired might not quite be what he expected either.

River is intelligent, mature filmmaking with a lot to say. It's also a thrilling ride from start to finish.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2016
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A volunteer doctor becomes a fugitive after he becomes the prime suspect in a murder.


EIFF 2016

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