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“Disappearance At Clifton Hill” Is A Noir Drenched In A Menacing Mood

A sense of dread permeates every frame of Disappearance at Clifton Hill, a noir type tale that evokes an hypnotic mood from start to finish. Now, this isn’t your traditional film noir, trafficking in cliches and men gritting their teeth. No, this has a female centric true north, making the investigator/protagonist a woman, and it pays dividends. Whenever you can upend a genre, even in a small way, it matters. Plus, when you have a high quality lead performance to latch on to, that helps as well. Hitting theaters this weekend, the movie is an independent effort that has large ambitions. To its credit, they mostly pay off.

The film is a mystery/thriller, though largely content to be a character based drama with ominous moments. After an intense prologue, we move to the present day. Returning to her Niagara Falls hometown after the death of her mother, Abby (Tuppence Middleton) arrives to town stuck in, and ignoring, the past. In short order, she becomes obsessed with a memory she has from her childhood, the same moment we see at the outset. She believes she witnessed a kidnapping, one that’s become notorious in the town, even inspiring a podcast hosted by a unique figure in Walter (David Cronenberg). Coming home also reunites Abby with Laure (Hannah Gross), her estranged younger sister. They have a number of issues to deal with, though Abby’s state of mind does that no favors. As they attempt to amicably settle their late mother’s estate, and in particular the sale of the family motel, which Abby wants to save, things weigh heavily on her. As she tries to figure out exactly what happened in her past, she winds up stumbling on to something potentially much larger and more dangerous. Albert Shin co-writes with James Schultz and directs. Supporting cast members include Marie-Josée Croze, Eric Johnson, David Lett, Andy McQueen, Aaron Pooel, Mikayla Radan, Noah Reid, and more. Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty compose the score, while Catherine Lutes handles the cinematography.

What sets this flick apart is how quietly menacing it all feels. Between the mood that Albert Shin establishes and the quietly haunting performance by Tuppence Middleton, whether the central mystery engages you or not is almost secondary. The environment is ominous and secretive. However, it may just be the desperate nature of a struggling community. Shin leans into that quite well, while Middleton is intensely compelling, no matter what she’s doing. In many ways, this feels like a novel come to life, and while that may make it sound insular, the visuals, while never flashy, keep you consistently invested.

Disappearance at Clifton Hill has a pulpy feel, but never becomes a B movie. It’s genre fare, to be sure, but Shin and company never succumb to simple tropes. They’re smarter and more deliberate than that. If there’s an issue to be found, it’s that the pacing, as can be the case in noir-type tales, is on the lax side. At a shade over 100 minutes long, it takes its time, sometimes to its detriment. It’s a small issue, but considering how effectively it ropes you in at the start, it’s hard not to wish that Shin had gotten a brighter grip on his pace.

Starting today, noir fans can see an intriguing little indie when Disappearance at Clifton Hill opens up. Between the noir trappings and Middleton’s compelling work, there’s plenty to like here. If we see Shin directing a big budget mystery in the coming years, that should surprise no one. He’s got the goods. Patient viewers should give this one a look.

Be sure to check out Disappearance at Clifton Hill, in theaters and On Demand now!

(Photos courtesy of IFC Midnight)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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