Review: ‘Falling’ (2021), starring Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen and Laura Linney

April 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lance Henriksen and Viggo Mortensen in “Falling” (Photo courtesy of Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution)

“Falling”

Directed by Viggo Mortensen

Culture Representation: Taking place in Southern California and an unnamed state on the East Coast of the U.S., the dramatic film “Falling” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Asians, Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An openly gay, middle-aged man has conflicts with his bigoted father, who has early signs of dementia. 

Culture Audience: “Falling” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about dysfunctional families and dealing with dementia, but the movie’s constant vitriol from one of the characters might be a turnoff to some viewers.

Terry Chen, Gabby Velis and Lance Henriksen in “Falling” (Photo courtesy of Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution)

If not for the commendable acting from the stars of the movie, “Falling” would be a very unpleasant chore to watch. This dramatic movie is the feature-film directorial debut of Viggo Mortensen, who also wrote the film’s screenplay and musical score. Mortensen is also one of the stars and producers of the “Falling,” which tells the story of how a hate-filled old man and his middle-aged children (especially his son) deal with the old man’s dementia and his search for a place to retire.

The direction of the movie veers between fluid and uneven. There are parts of the story that become too repetitive with bigotry and other bad behavior. However, there’s enough authenticity in the cast members’ performances in “Falling” that makes the movie worth watching to see how this emotionally damaged family is going to cope with family problems. In interviews, Mortensen has said that “Falling” is not biographical, but some parts of the film were inspired by what he’s experienced in real life.

There’s no other way to describe Willis Peterson (played by Lance Henriksen), the family’s patriarch: He’s a racist, homophobic, sexist, self-centered, foul-mouthed bully. Willis tests the patience of his family members (and people watching this movie) with his increasingly erratic and unhinged actions. Willis, who is in his 70s, is looking for a place to retire, possibly in California, and he’s being helped by his openly gay son John (played by Mortensen), who lives in Southern California.

Willis has another child named Sarah (played by Laura Linney), John’s younger sister, who isn’t in the movie for very long. But her presence in “Falling” brings a valuable perspective on how this family became such a mess of emotional terrorism by Willis. There’s a lot of unspoken resentment from the family members who put up with his disgusting nonsense. Sarah’s involvement is brief but impactful. “Falling” is really a father/son story, told from the perspective of Willis and John and their memories.

There are several non-chronological flashbacks in the movie that viewers have to put together like pieces in a puzzle to explain how and why this family ended up this way. The flashbacks go as far back as the early 1960s, when a young Willis (played by Sverrir Gudnason) and his wife Gwen (played by Hannah Gross) are parents to John when he was a baby. Willis says half-jokingly to baby John (played by twins Liam and Luca Cresctielli): “I’m sorry I brought you into this world so that you can die.” The family lives on an isolated farm in an unnamed state on the East Coast.

The movie’s flashbacks never show Sarah as a baby, but she’s about five years younger than John. The movie’s flashbacks show Sarah at approximately 4 to 6 years old (played by Carina Battrick) and at 11 years old (played by Ava Kozelj), while John is shown at 4 years old (played by Grady McKenzie), approximately 9 to 11 years old (played by (Etienne Kelliciand), and at age 16 (played by William Healy). It becomes apparent that Willis was a selfish person as a husband and a father. He’s the main cause for the family’s unhappiness.

Narcissistic people who become parents often have resentment when their children don’t pay as much attention to the narcissist as the kids did when they were younger. Based on what’s shown in the flashbacks, that’s exactly what happened with Willis. Gwen and Willis’ marriage began to crumble as their kids grew up and started to develop their own personalities and opinions. It’s a lot easier to boss around a 4-year-old than it is to boss around a 16-year-old.

There’s a flashback scene in the movie of Willis teaching 4-year-old John how to duck hunt. It’s one of the few scenes in the movie that show Willis and John seeming to be happy spending time together. After shooting a duck, John takes the dead duck home with him and refuses to give it to his mother to cook. Instead, John insists on treating the duck like a toy, even to the point of bringing the duck with him to bed. (Mortensen says that this happened to him in real life when he was a child.) Gwen eventually convinces John to give her the duck so that she can cook it.

But as John and Sarah got older, Willis’ nasty side came out even more. There’s a scene of John, at approximately 9 to 11 years old, having a birthday party in the family home. Gwen, Sarah, several children and their mothers are also at the party, which is a happy celebration until Willis tries to ruin it. Willis lurks nearby with a jealous look on his face, as if he can’t stand that he’s not the center of attention in his home. And sure enough, Willis blurts out something demeaning to humiliate John, while an embarrassed Gwen tries to ignore what happened and pretend that everything is okay.

But everything is not okay. In flashbacks, it’s shown that Willis cheated on Gwen with a younger woman named Jill (played by Bracken Burns), who was either a friend of Gwen’s or someone whom Gwen trusted enough to let Jill be a babysitter before the adultery betrayal. Willis and Jill moved in together around the time that John was 9 to 11 years old. Gwen and Willis got divorced. Gwen got full custody of the kids, with Willis getting visitation rights.

But when Gwen started dating another man, jealous Willis decided to not return John and Sarah from one of his visitations. The details are sketchy in the flashbacks, but it seems as if Willis and Jill took John and Sarah on an extended road trip without permission, which was a violation of the custody agreement. Willis freely admits to Jill that he didn’t want to return the kids to their mother, just to spite Gwen. It’s unclear if Willis went to jail over it, but he and Jill had the kids long enough where there’s a scene of Willis and Jill with the kids in a diner, the children look miserable, and the kids ask when they can go home.

By the time John became a teenager, John and Willis’ relationship had deteriorated to the point of them getting into physical fights. There’s a scene of Willis and a 16-year-old John getting into an argument and brawling while they were horseback riding together. Willis is the aggressor, and viewers can easily speculate that it’s not the first time that Willis has been physically abusive to John. It’s shown throughout the story that horses are a big deal to Willis, who seems to like horses more than he likes people.

Gwen eventually got remarried to someone named Danny, an artist whom Willis despised. Jill never married Willis but lived with him for a few years, and she eventually left Willis for a man she married named Michael White. Willis hated Michael too. Jill and Gwen are now both deceased. Willis never got remarried, which is no surprise because no one in their right mind would think that Willis would be a good husband.

Willis’ dementia causes him to sometimes confuse Gwen and Jill when he’s talking about them. And sometimes, he thinks Gwen and Jill are still alive. At one point, he calls Gwen a “whore” in one of his rants. In another scene, he calls Jill a “fucking saint.”

All of these details are not revealed in a smooth and straightforward manner in the movie. There’s a lot of timeline jumps that don’t always flow well with the story. People watching this movie also have to pay attention to conversations to pick up details about the Peterson family.

The main actors in “Falling” also communicate non-verbally (with facial expressions and body language) to express how their characters are feeling inside. Linney, who is always terrific in her performances, excels in this actor technique. In other words, “Falling” is a movie that is best appreciated if viewers are not distracted by anything else while watching it.

In a present-day scene, John (who used to be in the U.S. Air Force) mentions during one point in the movie that he didn’t accept that he was gay until he was in the military and he came out as gay around the same time. It’s unclear how long John was in the military, but there’s mention of him working as a pilot after he got out of the Air Force. John and Sarah, who live in Southern California, are now both happily married with children.

John’s husband Eric (played by Terry Chen) is a nurse who works the night shift at a local hospital. John and Eric have an adorable adopted daughter named Mónica (played by Gabby Velis), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Sarah and her husband (who is never seen in the movie) live in Ventura and have two teenagers: Paula (played by Ella Jonas Farlinger), who’s about 18 years old, and Will (played by Piers Bijvoet), who’s about 15 or 16. Willis shows some grandfatherly affection for Mónica, probably because she’s at an age where she’s easier to control than a teenager, and she might be too naïve to see what an awful person Willis is.

In one of the early scenes of “Falling,” John and Willis are on a plane because Willis is traveling from wherever he lives to visit John and Sarah in California. The other purpose of the trip is so that Willis can look for a possible retirement place in California, but it soon becomes clear that California is not exactly his first choice. Willis’ dementia has reached a point where it’s not safe for him to travel alone. He often gets confused about where is and what year it is.

This confusion becomes immediately apparent, when Willis causes a ruckus on the plane during mid-flight because he thinks he’s at home with Gwen instead of on a plane with John. John tries to calm Willis down, but Willis gets even more belligerent, as he gets up and yells for Gwen. John ends up having to physically restrain Willis. And when they disembark from the plane, Willis wanders away from the baggage claim area when John steps away for a few minutes.

It’s too bad that Wills’ vile temper can’t be restrained. The movie is filled with Willis’ unbridled rants where he makes it clear to anyone who listens that he’s a politically conservative bigot. Willis expresses disgust that John voted for Barack Obama, whom Willis calls a “Negro,” which might have been an acceptable term for black people before the 1970s, but not these days.

Willis also uses a homophobic slur for gay men several times through the movie. At one point, Willis asks John if John is sure that he’s gay. Willis’ tone of voice makes it clear that he wishes that John were straight. As for Willis’ thoughts on possibly moving to California, he shouts: “California is for cocksuckers and flag burners!”

Willis barely tolerates John’s husband Eric, whom Willis keeps misidentifying as Japanese, when Eric is actually Chinese and Hawaiian. Based on Eric’s reaction (he politely corrects Willis), this racial insensitivity is something that Eric has gotten used to from Willis, and it can’t be blamed on dementia. It’s made pretty clear from the flashbacks that Willis has been a jerk for a very long time.

And so, this obnoxiousness goes on and on for the entire movie. During a meal at John and Eric’s house, Willis lights up a cigarette, but John politely reminds him that they don’t allow smoking inside the house. What does Willis do? He puts out his cigarette in the food he was served. In another scene later in the movie, Willis throws raw eggs at John when John suggests that Willis have a healthier diet.

A family meal at Sarah’s home with John, Eric, Sarah and their kids cant go without Willis making derogatory comments. Sarah’s son Will has recently dyed his hair blue. Willis comments on his grandson’s hair by saying, “Do you want to be a homo?” He makes other homophobic comments until a distressed Will gets up and leaves the table, but not before telling Willis that he’s ashamed to be named after him.

As insufferable as Willis is, there are miserable haters like this who exist in the world, and they want everyone else to be as miserable as they are. Willis might be difficult to watch, but “Falling” seems to be making an often-heavy-handed point that this is what happens when toxic people go unchecked. Pity anyone who has to live with someone like Willis in real life.

Willis’ filthy mouth isn’t just about spewing hate speech. This movie has a lot of talk of bodily functions (urinating, defecating and farting), and most of these cringeworthy comments are from Willis. In one scene in the movie, Willis tells his granddaughter Mónica  that when John was a child, John used to be so frightened of an imaginary monster named Mortimer, that John used to “shit the bed.”

In another scene, Willis has a prostate exam to determine if he needs surgery for prostate cancer. In the examination room, with John in the room, Willis tells the physician named Dr. Klausner (played by filmmaker David Cronenberg, who’s worked with Mortensen on several movies): “Don’t let my son anywhere near my asshole. He’s likely to get excited.”

John and Sarah mostly react to their father’s hate-filled rants by trying not to argue with him. A lot of viewers will be frustrated by how Willis isn’t called out enough for his despicable comments and actions, regardless if he has dementia or not. However, as uncomfortable as it may be to watch, John and Sarah’s enabling is very realistic of how people try to ignore bigotry and hate instead of trying to confront it and stop it.

John and Sarah also seem afraid to confront their father because even though he’s an ailing old man, John and Sarah still seem to be a little bit afraid of him. Scenes in the movie show that Willis has a violent temper. And so, there’s probably unspoken violent abuse that Willis inflicted on his kids when they were young that still haunt John and Sarah.

However, the best scene in the movie is when John finally unleashes and gives Willis the verbal takedown he very much deserves. A lot of viewers will be thinking about John finally standing up to his father: “What took you so long?” Other viewers might have different reactions.

One of the few scenes in the movie where the family isn’t under some kind of emotional attack from Willis is when John, Eric, Mónica and Willis all go to an art gallery together. John’s mother Gwen loved art, so this trip to the gallery is his way of trying to pass along Gwen’s appreciation of art to Mónica. However, this relatively calm family outing is rare, because most of what the Peterson family experiences in this story revolves around Willis’ negativity and problems that he usually creates.

The flashback scenes in “Falling” answer some questions about the Peterson family dynamics, but leave other questions unanswered. For example, viewers never get to see how John and Sarah were raised by Gwen after the divorce. And this omission is an indication that the flashbacks are mostly from Willis’ perspective. Maybe this disjointed way of telling the story is writer/director Mortensen’s way of depicting what fractured memories in dementia feel like. The final scene of “Falling,” just like the rest of the movie, can be frustratingly muddled, because it’s better at expressing moods than fine-tuning the details.

Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution released “Falling” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on February 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Tesla,’ starring Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan and Hannah Gross

August 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ethan Hawke in “Tesla” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Tesla”

Directed by Michael Almereyda

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S. Northeast and in Colorado, primarily from 1884 to 1901, the dramatic film “Tesla” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant in the United States who later became a U.S. citizen, is a brilliant inventor, but he struggles to get investors and he experiences bad business deals.

Culture Audience: “Tesla” will appeal mostly to people who are open to experimental biopics, since the movie has some unconventional elements that viewers will either like or dislike.

Ethan Hawke and Eve Hewson in “Tesla” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

If you think a movie called “Tesla,” about pioneering Serbian American inventor Nikola Tesla, who died in 1943 at the age of 86, is a stuffy affair with the usual biopic tropes, think again. “Tesla” writer/director Michael Almereyda’s very unconventional depiction of Tesla’s life has some out-of-left-field scenes that will either intrigue or annoy viewers. The movie should be commended for taking some bold risks, although the pacing in some parts of “Tesla” drags to the point where people might get bored.

That’s because “Tesla” is more of an introspective and murky think piece instead of a rousing story about one of science’s pioneers who was underrated and often overlooked during his time. (Tesla’s name was the inspiration for the tech company founded by Elon Musk, as well as the California-based rock band Tesla, which had hits in the 1980s and early 1990s.) The movie “Tesla” might hold the interest of people who don’t want to see a typical biopic, but everyone else should stay clear of this movie if they want something that sticks to a briskly paced “feel good” formula. And this movie (which mostly takes place from 1884 to 1901) isn’t really told from Tesla’s perspective.

One of the unpredictable aspects of “Tesla” is that Tesla (played by Ethan Hawke) is almost like a supporting character in this story that’s supposed to be about Tesla’s life. The movie is narrated by heiress/philanthropist Anne Morgan (played by Eve Hewson), who befriends Tesla in the movie and offers observations of him, as if she’s commenting in the present day. (In real life, she died in 1952, at the age of 78.) For example, there are multiple scenes with Anne using an Apple laptop computer and mentioning that if people do Google searches on inventors Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Tesla, there are millions more search results for Edison and Westinghouse than there are for Tesla.

The point is clear: Tesla, who worked with Edison and Westinghouse during various parts of his career, is still frequently overshadowed by them in the present day, just as he was when he was alive. Does the movie “Tesla” present him as a misunderstood genius? Yes and no.

On the one hand, the movie shows how Tesla (who immigrated to the U.S. in 1884) could excel as a scientist/inventor. His inventions included designing one of the first alternate current [AC] hydroelectric power plants in the United States in 1895. On the other hand, Tesla wasn’t so smart when it came to business. The movie depicts some well-documented situations when he was notoriously cheated in business deals and made other bad financial decisions that left him destitute by the time he died.

The “Tesla” movie makes it clear, through Anne’s constant narration, that Tesla was so introverted that the few people he allowed to get close to him often did not know what he was thinking. Anne explains that one of the biggest frustrations she had with Tesla was that he “lives inside his head” too much.

The movie shows that, in addition to Anne, there was one person Tesla was close to in his prime years as an inventor: his assistant Anthony Szigeti (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a Hungarian engineer whom Tesla met when they were students at Prague University. There’s a scene where Tesla shows that he’s still haunted by the death of his brother Dane, who died in a horsing accident at the age of 12, when Tesla was 7. Tesla confides to Anthony about his beloved brother Dane: “He was the brilliant one. I could never measure up.”

And the movie also depicts that although Tesla certainly excelled in his intellectual pursuits, due to his pioneering work with electricity, he placed his work over his personal life. Tesla never married, did not have children, and he died alone. Anne mentions in voiceover narration that Tesla was very close to his mother in his childhood. Anne says aloud at one point in the movie: “I came to wonder: Could any woman touch or reach Tesla the way his mother had?”

In the movie, Anne is just a platonic friend to Tesla, although it’s hinted that at some point that she had a romantic attraction to him, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Anne cared a great deal about what Tesla thought of her, as evidenced in a scene where Anne and Tesla are rollerskating together in a courtyard. Tesla falls down and cuts short the activity. “I’m fine,” he tells Anne. “Sometimes I have an unfavorable reaction to pearls.” Anne then hastily takes off the pearl necklace she is wearing.

French superstar actress Sarah Bernhardt (played by Rebecca Dayan) has a brief flirtation with Tesla, but it never goes anywhere, since they only encounter each other occasionally at social events. During one of those encounters, Sarah emerges in a scene set to electronic dance music. It’s one of many scenes where the movie infuses modern elements of things that weren’t invented yet during the time period depicted in the movie.

Other real-life people depicted in the movie include banker Alfred Brown (played by Ian Lithgow) and attorney Charles Peck (played by Michael Mastro), two investors who formed the Tesla Electric Company with Tesla and helped Tesla set up his own lab in 1887. Also portrayed in the movie are writer/editor Robert Underwood Johnson (played by Josh Hamilton), who was best known for his work with The Century Magazine, and his wife Katharine Johnson (played by Lucy Walters), who both befriended Tesla in the 1890s.

Hawke, who starred in director Almereyda’s 2000 movie adaptation of “Hamlet,” certainly wasn’t cast in the role of Tesla because of his physical resemblance. In real life, Tesla was about 6’2″ and had a rail-thin figure. Hawke is 5’10” and has an average build. And Hawke’s accent in the movie isn’t that great. It’s supposed to be a Serbian accent, but it comes out sounding quasi-European.

However, what Hawke does capture well (and it looks like this was the intention of the filmmakers) is Tesla’s introverted nature, his reluctance to deal with confrontation and his almost blind trust that other inventors would have the same type of integrity that he seemed to have. There are several scenes in the movie that show how Tesla could be in a room with other people and be overshadowed by people with bigger personalities and more financial clout.

Anne, a daughter of wealthy banker J.P. Morgan (played by Donnie Keshawarz), is one of those people, as depicted in this movie. Even though she’s much younger than Tesla, she has the power to get him major investment money via her father. And being the narrator of this movie, Anne’s confident personality shines through much more than Tesla’s.

Anne would become an outspoken feminist later in her life, and the movie shows signs of her being a free thinker who wasn’t afraid to go against tradition. She likes to challenge Tesla with questions having to do with science or philosophy. In one scene, Anne says to Tesla: “Idealism cannot work together with capitalism. True or false?”

Another personality that outshines Tesla’s is that of Thomas Edison (played by Kyle MacLachlan), the flashy inventor who took big risks and was often accused of taking credit for other people’s work. Tesla was sometime caught between the bitter rivalry of Edison and the more low-key George Westinghouse (played by Jim Gaffigan), but the end result was that Tesla was helped and hurt by his business deals with both of these titan inventors. Westinghouse was not as much of an attention-seeker as Edison was, but the movie shows that Westinghouse (just like Edison) was also capable of making ruthless business decisions, at the expense of alienating colleagues and in order to make himself wealthy.

Of the three inventors, Edison is one who’s depicted in the least flattering way in the movie. In a scene taking place in New York City in 1884, and portraying recent immigrant Tesla joining his new employer Edison for dinner with some other men, Edison shows some xenophobia by trying to embarrass Tesla with these questions: “Is it true that you’re from Transylvania? Have you ever eaten human flesh?” Edison then tries to laugh off these insults by saying, “We like to give the new men a hard time.”

Edison is essentially portrayed as a pompous blowhard who could be short-sighted if he couldn’t see immediate ways to make money. In one scene, Edison tells a group of businessmen: “Alternating current is a waste of time. There’s no future in it.” And in another scene, Tesla comments on Edison: “He talks to everyone but is incapable of listening.”

The movie has some whimsical fantasy sequences that Anne admits in narration never happened. One is a scene depicting Edison and Tesla getting into an argument, and they take ice cream cones that they’re holding and smash each cone on the other person. Another fabricated scene is one where Edison meets Tesla in a saloon and makes an apology to Tesla, who worked briefly for Edison from 1884 to 1885. And who really knows if Tesla and Anne ever rollerskated together in a courtyard? However, it’s depicted more than once in the movie.

The movie also portrays milestone achievements in science and technology, such as the invention of the phonograph, indoor electrical wiring and the first experiments in human electrocution. In all of these depictions, Edison or Westinghouse get all the glory, while Tesla’s contributions are trivialized to the media and to the public. The movie also shows Tesla in various times and places, such as New York City in 1881; Pittsburgh in 1888; Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1899; and New York state’s Long Island in 1901.

Anne narrates what goes on in the personal lives of Edison and Westinghouse, including Edison’s marriage to second wife Mina Miller Edison (played by Hannah Gross), who had a big influence on her husband’s business decisions. The movie even goes as far to show some of Edison’s courtship with Mina, when she was engaged to marry a preacher’s son. It’s another example of how much of Tesla’s life takes a back seat to larger personalities in the movie.

The Tesla scene in the movie that most people will talk about or remember is one of those “bizarre time warp” moments, because it shows Tesla, alone with a microphone, belting out Tears for Fears’ 1985 hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” It’s not performed in an upbeat karaoke way, but in a world-weary way that reflects Tesla’s state of mind of being worn down by his life’s disappointments. This scene is so kooky and unexpected that viewers will either love it or hate it.

Is this “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” scene meant to be funny or edgy? That’s up to viewers decide. The scene comes near the end of the movie, and it’s a welcome jolt from some of the tedium that happens during various parts of this unevenly paced film.

Because indoor electrical wiring was still a luxury for most of the time period in which the movie takes place, many of the interior scenes are darkly lit and present many of the characters in dour and shadowy tones. And the movie doesn’t offer a lot of scenes of Tesla actually doing any inventing, probably because the filmmakers thought that these types of scenes would bore viewers who aren’t science-minded.

Tesla isn’t always center stage in this story, and that might be off-putting to viewers who are expecting an in-depth portrayal of his personality. But it’s obvious that Tesla was an enigma to many people who knew him. Would it have been better for a movie about Tesla to invent aspects of his personality that might not have existed, just to be a more crowd-pleasing movie? It’s obvious that the filmmakers decided to keep Tesla an enigma and throw in some modern and unexpected twists in telling this story.

For a more conventional portrayal of Tesla, people can see director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2019 dramatic film “The Current War: The Director’s Cut,” which is about the competition between Edison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon), with Nicholas Hoult in the supporting role of Tesla. Just like with the “Tesla” movie, “The Current War: The Director’s Cut” has cast members whose acting talent elevates the flawed screenplay. “Tesla” offers enough original unpredictability that makes this movie worth watching for anyone who’s curious to see an artsy, non-traditional version of Tesla’s life.

IFC Films released “Tesla” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on August 21, 2020.

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 called 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.