Review: ‘Disappearance at Clifton Hill,’ starring Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, David Cronenberg, Eric Johnson and Marie-Josée Croze

March 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tuppence Middleton in “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Disappearance at Clifton Hill” 

Directed by Albert Shin

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Niagra Falls area in Canada and the U.S., this crime thriller has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Indian and black people) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with a history of being a pathological liar sets out to solve the mystery of a kidnapping that she says she witnessed as a child, even if it means that the city’s most powerful family could be involved in the crime.

Culture Audience: “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” will appeal primarily to people who like mystery stories that are structured like detective procedurals and will leave viewers guessing until the very end.

David Cronenberg and Tuppence Middleton in “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

What happens if you witness a serious crime as a child, you report the crime as an adult, but people don’t believe you because you’ve ruined your reputation by being an emotionally unstable pathological liar? The mystery thriller “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” takes this unconventional approach to crime-solving by having the protagonist not as a noble detective but as someone with serious credibility issues and a troubled past. This is not Nancy Drew.

The movie’s central character is Abby West (played by Tuppence Middleton), a woman in her early 30s who has returned to her hometown of Ajax, Ontario, whose economy is fueled primarily by tourism at nearby Niagra Falls. She’s back in town because her widowed mother has died, and the inheritance needs to be settled. Abby has a younger sister named Laure (played by Hannah Gross), and they’ve been estranged from each other for a number of years.

At the reading of the will in a lawyer’s office, Abby and Laure find out that they’ve inherited their mother’s run-down motel call The Rainbow Inn. It’s the family business and where they grew up as children. Abby wants to keep the motel and take over as the new owner/manager, but Laure wants to follow the lawyer’s advice and sell the business. “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” director Albert Shin (who co-wrote the screenplay with James Schultz) grew up in Niagra Falls and his family owned a motel. That background gives this engrossing story added realism.

Someone who’s interested in buying the Rainbow Inn is Charles Lake III, nicknamed Charlie (played by Eric Johnson), who’s a descendant of the most powerful and richest family in the area. He’s the heir of the family firm CLC, which is a diversified company that invests in property. Charlie, who has a charming exterior that masks a ruthless side to him, says that the company wants to turn the Rainbow Inn into an amusement funhouse for tourists, but Abby is dead-set against it.

Abby and Laure are very different from each other in almost every way. Abby, who’s single, has a reputation for being flaky and a pathological liar who moves around a lot. The movie goes into details about how bad Abby’s lies were before she came back to the Niagra Falls area. Her emotional problems reached a point where she spent time in a psychiatric institution.

By contrast, Laure (who’s stayed in her hometown for all of her life) has settled down in a happy marriage and stable life with her husband Marcus (played by Noah Reid). Laure and Marcus both work for the Niagra Police Department: She’s a surveillance supervisor, and he’s a police officer.

Abby’s reckless lies have considerably damaged her relationship with Laure, and it’s clear that there’s still a lot of lingering resentment. When Abby tells Laure that they can’t sell the motel because “We grew up there,” Laure’s withering response is,”One of us grew up.”

As the two sisters disagree over what will become of the Rainbow Inn, Abby settles into the motel and gets a reminder of a haunting experience from her past. In 1994, when she was 7 years old (a scene shown in the beginning of the movie), Abby, Laure and their parents were on a fishing trip near a wooded lake area. Abby wandered off into the woods and saw an older boy (about 12 or 13) with a bloodied bandage over his left eye, indicating a recent injury caused him to no longer have a left eye. When the boy saw Abby, he put his index finger to his mouth to signal that he wanted her to be quiet.

Suddenly, a man and a woman appeared in a car on a road above the embankment, kidnapped the boy, and put him in the trunk of the car. From the way it happened, it appeared that boy had escaped from his abductors into the woods and had the bad luck of been caught again.

Abby, who was nearly seen by the kidnappers, was in shock the entire time. When she went back to her parents and sister to take a family photo near the lake, she didn’t say a word about what she just witnessed. As the West family was taking the photo, Abby saw the car drive by again, and the man and the woman briefly exited and then re-entered the car. That family photo and other photos that her mother took on that trip would turn out to have crucial evidence about the identities of the kidnappers.

Fast forward 25 years later, and Abby comes across the photos from that family trip, which triggers her memories of the kidnapping. And perhaps because she has a guilty conscience about not reporting it to the police, she decides to do the right thing and finally report the crime that she says she witnessed.

From a conversation that Abby has with Laure at the police station, viewers find out that Abby did eventually tell Laure about the kidnapping when they were much younger. But by then, Abby had told so many lies that Laure didn’t believe her, and Abby didn’t go to the police until now. Abby’s brother-in-law Marcus accompanies Abby when she reports the kidnapping. Marcus is more likely than Laure to give Abby the benefit of the doubt.

There’s a big problem when Abby reports the kidnapping: She doesn’t have any evidence, except for a somewhat blurry photo of the two people she believes are the kidnappers. And her reputation for being a liar has already preceded her.

It also doesn’t help that a cop named Singh (played by Andy McQueen) who takes Abby’s report is someone who’s already had an unpleasant run-in with her. He was a guy whom Abby had picked up at a bar and took back to the motel shortly after she arrived back in town, not knowing that he was a cop. Abby and Singh had an awkward sexual encounter when, after kissing and starting to take off their clothes, Abby blurted out that she was a virgin and then denied it. Uncomfortable with what just happened and sensing that Abby might be unstable, Singh left the motel in a hurry.

After meeting Abby for the first time under these circumstances and later hearing about her habit of lying from her own family members, it’s no wonder that he’s skeptical of Abby’s story. Singh is so convinced that she’s lying that he doesn’t even take notes when she tells him about the kidnapping. Abby gets angry over Singh’s uninterested response, so he reluctantly checks to see if there are any open cases of kidnappings or missing persons in the area that fit what Abby has described. He returns after a few minutes and tells her that no such case exists.

This is where the amateur detective portion of the story kicks into gear, because Abby decides to investigate the kidnapping on her own. One of the first things she does is go to the local library, where she finds archived newspaper articles that report the suicide death of a 13-year-old named Alex Moulin (played by Colin McLeod), whose body was found in a gorge. He’s the same boy that Abby saw being kidnapped in 1994.

Alex’s parents are a French Canadian magician duo called the Magnificent Moulins, and part of their stage act includes a trained tiger that’s kept in a cage. The Magnificent Moulins—known as Mr. Moulin (played by Paulino Nunes) and Mrs. Moulin (played by Marie-Josée Croze)—are still active performers, but they moved out of the area years ago after the death of their son Alex, who was their only child.

Of course, Abby isn’t convinced that Alex really committed suicide. And soon, she finds someone who has the same opinion. While walking near the wooded lake where the kidnapping took place, Abby meets by chance a scuba diver named Walter Bell (played by David Cronenberg, the award-winning filmmaker), who tells her that he’s the unofficial town historian. Walter also hosts a podcast called “Over the Falls,” which discusses unusual items he’s found while scuba diving in Niagra Falls and how these items tie into the area’s mysteries and local folklore.

Walter and Abby meet up again later, and she tells him about the kidnapping that she witnessed, while he drops hints to her about what he really thinks happened to Alex Moulin. It’s a conspiracy theory that he says involves the wealth, power and corruption of the Lake family, and he suspects that Charles Lake III is definitely part of a cover-up. Walter encourages Abby to continue sleuthing. Her skill at being a liar comes in handy when she thinks of various schemes to get to the bottom of the mystery.

“Disappearance at Clifton Hill” will keep viewers riveted as Abby gets more and more wrapped up in the case. There are a few scenes that stretch credulity, but they can be explained away because Niagra Falls doesn’t have a large police force, thereby making it easier for Abby to act like a one-person detective agency and not get too much blowback about it from the local police. She’s also investigating something that the police don’t think is worth investigating, so she’s not competing with them to solve this mystery.

The movie was filmed entirely on location in the Niagra Falls area. That authenticity greatly benefits the look of “Disappearance at Clifton Hill,” which has a memorable Hitchcock-influenced chase sequence at night on the Clifton Hill promenade. It’s an area filled with funhouses, wax museums and carnival attractions that look much more sinister in the dark.

The movie’s cast also does a very good and credible job in portraying these realistic characters. Abby’s resourceful determination and her willingness to try to atone for her past mistakes will make viewers root for her. And her sleuthing skills will almost make people think that she’s should be a private investigator instead of a motel owner. If you like suspenseful mysteries with some unpredictable twists and intriguing characters, then “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” is definitely worth your time.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” in select U.S. cinemas on February 28, 2020.