Written and Directed by Jamie M. Dagg
John, an American doctor volunteering in Laos, takes a leave of absence after one of his patients dies. During his vacation in the Southern part of the country, he encounters two Australian tourists who seem keen to get their Laotian lady friends drunk. When one of the Australians sexually assaults an intoxicated Laotian woman, John intervenes resulting in the death of the young Australian. Panicking and slightly drunk himself after drowning his sorrows, John flees the scene and becomes a man on the run. Will he be able to escape the law and will anyone dare to help him?
Shot almost like a documentary, RIVER plays out like one extended scene after events take a sour turn after what started out like a straight-forward night. Whilst John had fine moral intentions to protect the young woman who was attacked, his subsequent handling of the situation appears far from perfect as he attempts to hide the body and flee rather than going directly to the police. The insecure doctor seems unable to do anything right and seems more bothered about his own skin and feelings than those around him as we follow him as he sneaks around Laos, hiding from the police and hitching rides with strangers. With a warrant for his arrest and $10,000 as a reward for his whereabouts, John has to play it cool if he’s remain unspotted making our journey with him a tense, nail-biting affair.
As if we were perched on his shoulder, the viewer is with John every step of the way. We see how the stunningly picturesque location of Laos becomes a shadowy character in itself as it becomes a living prison for John, a foreigner in a strange land where everyone seems to be against him. With very few people he can rely upon in the region, his chances of evading capture are pretty slim especially with the military and police searching every port and transport point for him. The scenes of John at the local market, wandering around the streets of Laos and hanging around the bus terminal scream authenticity as the environment comes alive with citizens going about their daily lives. This doesn’t feel like your ordinary film where extras are hired to play the parts of background characters. Instead, we have Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald and half-brother of Kiefer, as a down-on-his-luck guy roaming around the country of Laos, trying to stay alive and free from conviction of his heinous, if accidental, crime. Everyone, from the little old lady buying her groceries to the young man selling bus tickets, could potentially recognise him and shop him in to the police where a life behind bars, or worst, awaits. Though he never set out to murder anyone, John’s actions have led him to commit manslaughter and no matter how unintentional, his actions have a consequence and justice must be served. The thought of being captured seems too much for John who’s strong belief in himself and his ‘innocence’ leads him to clutch onto the idea of freedom for dear life and we’re dragged along for the ride, almost as though we’re aiding and abetting a criminal.
RIVER conjures up a moral dilemma that will make you questions what you would do if you were in John’s shoes. Nothing is black or white and this is certainly the case here although in the eyes of the authorities, there is only one solution: to capture the murderer. Rossif’s strong lead performance makes for tense, on-the-edge viewing as the unhinged John looks to break at any moment, operating solely on auto pilot and survival mode. His fight or flight reaction makes him a loose canon and we genuinely don’t know what he will do from one moment to the next. The audience becomes as paranoid as John does when he flees the scene as every single person becomes a threat to his freedom.
Beautifully shot by Adam Marsden, RIVER is a wonderful, exotic experience if a little shallow as a thriller. Jamie M. Dagg has certainly shown artistic and directional flair in this, his debut feature film, though the narrative itself lacks the grit and meat needed to turn it into something great. Nevertheless, Dagg and star Rossif Sutherland are without a doubt ones to watch out for in the future.