Grant Scicluna’s debut feaure, Downriver is a dark tale of secrets and redemption set in a small rural town. Although, I haven’t seen Scicluna stress the theme anywhere, it is also a film largely dominated by gay male relationships.
The film opens with eighteen-year-old James (Reef Ireland) being confronted upon his parole by the mother of a child whose death by drowning was the reason for his lengthy incarceration. The body of the boy has never been found, a fact that particularly haunts the mother. James suspects his childhood friend Anthony (Thom Green), who was also present when the child died, hid the body but he was never charged.
Once free, James is obsessed with finding the boy’s body. He defies his parole officer and his mother (Kerry Fox) and goes to stay at the caravan park near to the river where the death took place. James confronts Anthony, who claims to know nothing more than he has already told the police. He befriends Damien (Charles Grounds), an impressionable young man also staying at the caravan park, and who turns into an ally of sorts in James’ mission.
It becomes apparent very quickly that Anthony’s silence is bound up in a much larger and darker conspiracy involving the boy’s death and Anthony’s extremely dangerous family.
There is a lot of like about Downriver. Thanks to the cinematographer of Laszlo Baranyai (who filmed another wonderful looking local crime fim, Noise, in 1997), it looks great. Baranyai extracts maximum atmosphere from the location and characters and is crucial in helping to create the film’s sense of moody tension.
The story largely works as a thriller and contains some scenes of genuine high tension. Most of the performances are good, with Fox and Ireland particularly notable. Fox excels as James’ exhausted mother, ambivalent about having him back in her live and struggling to maintain her own relationship with her truck driver boyfriend.
Ireland portrays of James as a cold, remote individual, which completely works given the character has spent a large part of his life in prison. James’ actions require a certain suspension of disbelief, not so much his decision to try and find the boy’s body, but his unshakeable belief that he can discover something people much better equipped and smarter than him have been unable to. Then again, his determination also speaks to his desperation to achieve some kind of inner peace and the fact he can’t move on with his life until the mystery is resolved.
Without making too much of an issue about it, I also appreciated the fact that Scicluna had the determination and courage not to back peddle on the gay relationships involving James, Damien and Anthony.This includes James’ briefly touched on relationship with his cell mate in prison and Damien’s attraction to both James and Anthony. This is something that is pretty rare in Australian cinema. In this interview, Scicluna talks about being influenced by a number of the key directors in the ‘Queer New Wave’ of cinema, including Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki and his amazing 2004 film, Mysterious Skin, the small town setting of which has some parallels to Downriver.
Without wanting to give away too much, the main weakness for me involves the lack of resolution regarding the character of Anthony. I don’t demand neat conclusions from my cinema, particularly my crime cinema. I don’t need to have everything explained to me and ever plot line neatly tied up. Indeed, I prefer it when this is not to be the case. But Scicluna spends a lot of the film developing Anthony as a mysterious, interesting, integral part of the story only to leave him dangling there at the end.
Downriver is not a perfect film, but it is solid effort and an interesting addition to the canon of Australian small town thrillers. It premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival and is showing this coming Friday, August 14th and Sunday, August 16. Both sessions are sold out. Fingers crossed it gets at least a limited local cinema release, as it deserves to be seen by a wider audience.