I like to think I’m a fan of most film genres, but there’s something about a taut mystery that is extra exciting. Disappearance at Clifton Hill channels a lot of what makes the genre great, trapping you in a deliciously moody atmosphere as lead character Abby (Tuppence Middleton) runs around town as an amateur sleuth to uncover a big-time conspiracy. Director Albert Shin wears his influences proudly in that sense; there are pieces of many prominent neo-noirs riddled throughout Disappearance at Clifton Hill. But in a choice that is alienating, frustrating, but deeply fascinating at the same time, it’s what Albert Shin does with the Abby character that elevates the film above a simple pastiche.
A Classic Mystery Setup
Before getting to that discussion, I must say, I absolutely love what Disappearance at Clifton Hill does right from the start. In a disorientingly unnerving opening, a young Abby is by a lake with her family for a little fishing trip, when she runs into a young boy with gauze covering a bloody eye hiding in the trees. A car then proceeds to stop on the road above them. Two adults grab the boy, stuff him into the trunk, and speed off. Young Abby is left to process what on Earth she just witnessed, and then…opening credits! It’s a perfect hook to start a mystery.
From there, we’re introduced to the town of Clifton Hill, near Niagara Falls. It’s the offseason, so the town is fairly quiet. After the death of her mother, Abby, now many years older, returns to Clifton Hill and learns she is inheriting her mom’s quaint but quickly failing motel. The memories of the haunting encounter with the bandaged boy quickly come back to her, and she begins to put pieces together, creating her own investigation while fending off her skeptical sister (Hannah Gross), the opportunistic Charlie Lake of the shadowy Charles Lake Corporation who wishes to buy her motel, a highly eccentric magician couple with hammy accents, and any other colorful characters in this tourist trap turned ghost town. She goes to the police — as one does in this kind of movie — but they are of little help, so it is largely up to Abby to piece together what the hell actually happened so many years ago.
Each location has a sense of personality, my favorite of which being a UFO-themed diner. Inherently, detective stories are repetitive. The protagonist goes to a location, questions a suspect or finds a clue, and then repeats. Every third encounter or so, a threat to the protagonist’s well-being occurs, whether its a shootout, a chase, or something else to get the blood pumping. Disappearance at Clifton Hill follows that template fairly religiously, which is perfectly fine because it’s a deeply idiosyncratic film with plenty of fun, little touches. It’s filled with all the trappings, so while there are no large set pieces to speak of, there’s always something slightly off-kilter to chew on.
David Cronenberg, Podcaster
I think the reason I always return to this genre is the quirky, silly characters with which the protagonist comes into contact. Perhaps a lot of my admiration for Disappearance at Clifton Hill is because legendary filmmaker David Cronenberg nearly steals the show as a key supporting character.
I miss David Cronenberg, and I want more of him in my life — and you should feel the same. (At the very least, I am feeling a bit giddy about the prospects of his son Brandon’s career after the experiencing Possessor and all its gonzo glory at Sundance.) He hasn’t directed a movie since 2014’s Map to the Stars, so seeing him here as Walter, the self-appointed historian of the surrounding area, is an absolute privilege.
His character introduction is so striking, mostly because it’s hair-raising for a split second as he rises from the lake, and then quickly turns silly after you realize he’s friendly. Upon emerging from the water and meeting Abby as she studies the same shore of the lake where the boy was possibly kidnapped, Cronenberg’s Walter explains he’s a member of the local rescue dive team. He rummages around the basin at the end of the Falls, picking up anything from lost jewelry to limbs. He also hosts a podcast.
Aptly named “Over the Falls”, Walter’s podcast muses the possible dark history of Clifton Hill, which is often shared through voice-over in the film. Walter also acts as Abby’s main source of intel when she needs guidance. Basically, he’s Deep Throat, except he also asks you to rate and review.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill fills the screen with characters such as Walter who all have their own peculiarities. Though often silly in theory, these traits are presented straight, causing an overwhelmingly moody film filled with grays and off-yellows to pop, even if it isn’t in a visual sense. Instead of a lot of laughs, the odd characters make each scene more fascinating. Similar to how the Coen Brothers use highly specific actors in supporting roles of their films, Disappearance at Clifton Hill always has someone coming off the bench to add a spark.
The Unreliable Narrator
But Tuppence Middleton’s Abby is the most fascinating character of them all. We see neo-noirs play with the unreliable narrator device all the time: it turns out they had another motive all along, had some sort of memory loss, or were imagining almost everything. In the case of Abby, she’s a pathological liar. An early encounter points to something being off with her as she meets a man — who later turns out to be a new cop in the area — takes him back to the motel and quickly divulges that she is a virgin, only to deny she said that a few seconds later. Tuppence Middleton is so tremendous at adding a casual dignity to the character that you may find yourself disregarding oddities such as this with a simple shrug — as if they’re tiny blips on what is otherwise a spotless record.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a coming-out-party of sorts for Tuppence Middleton, who never makes a false move. She imbues her character with a strong sense of normalcy, which makes her dishonesty truly insidious. So much so that her sister Laure, played nicely by Hannah Gross, appears as the out-of-touch, staunchly disapproving family member so many of these movies have, when in reality she’s probably the sanest person in the room. Without spoiling it, by the end of the film, you quickly realize this has been an opaque mental health conversation with a very perplexing character at the center of it.
But there are also some unintended consequences which keep me falling in love with Disappearance at Clifton Hill. As the credits hit, many viewers may feel entirely frustrated — like they were sent on a wild goose chase without a clear conclusion. Part of me feels that way too. Something clearly happened in this small town, but to what exactly is beyond my comprehension. The script often likes to conflate ambiguity with incomprehensibility. It’s almost like the movie was searching for meaning along with me.
My mind went back to last year’s Under the Silver Lake, another muddied noir-riff where the lead character is in search of meaning, only to find all the loose strands he’s been pulling at may not come together satisfyingly. Still, Under the Silver Lake does coalesce into a fascinating portrait of a scuzzy Hollywood that has mistreated women for so many years. As for Disappearance at Clifton Hill, its internal logic is murky at best.
Thankfully, the film can still hang its hat on a tantalizing lead character, whose arc does reach a fascinating conclusion point even when the pieces around her do not. And unlike something like Netflix’s Horse Girl, which is perfectly happy letting the character descend further and further into her own mania without much of a comment on it, Disappearance at Clifton Hill does have some sort of reckoning that the main character must confront, adding a sobering note to what was already a movie dripping with moodiness.
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