Disappearance at Clifton Hill tells the story of Abby (Tuppence Middleton), a pathological liar who returns home only to discover that her family’s motel on Niagara’s famous (or infamous?) Clifton Hill has been sold. When a childhood trauma is triggered, she sets out on a quest to uncover the truth of what may (or may not) have happened in her past.
Written and directed by Albert Shin (In Her Place), Clifton Hill is a riveting neo-noir story that is willing to take their audience into the shadows in order to bring the truth to light. Though set in ‘family-friendly’ world of Niagara’s renowned Clifton Hill, the film instead focuses on the area’s seedy underbelly. Dimly lit bars, bleeding colours within roadside diners and second-rate attractions give the area a menacing quality that bleeds off the screen. Rooted in his own childhood experiences outside Clifton Hill, Shin creates an uneasy love-letter to the area in which he grew up that plays with the malleability of memory. (In fact, given the film’s moody atmosphere and complex storytelling, the fact that this is only Shin’s third feature is somewhat stunning as the film is often shot with the confidence of a veteran director.)
While the entire cast is solid, the film is anchored by Tuppence Middleton’s performance as the potentially untrustworthy detective, Abby. As the faulty narrator of the film, Abby is genuine in her desire for justice yet flawed in her own self-awareness. As Abby, Middleton bring the character to life with a quiet rage that seethes beneath her sweetness as she attempts to understand her own repressed history. (What’s more, it’s also worth mentioning that iconic filmmaker David Cronenberg’s somewhat meta-performance as a wild conspiracy theorist is worth the price of admission on its own.)
In Clifton Hill, the artificial nature of the entertainment district is exposed as ‘smoke and mirrors’ for the sake of tourists. Held up against the natural wonder of the Falls themselves, this is a world that is entirely manmade and filled with contradictions. Filled with wax museums and haunted mansions, Clifton Hill is an area that wants you to believe in the amazing. However, the film also recognizes the emptiness behind the attractions that whizz, hum and shine for the public that gives them a menacing quality. (In fact, the film even reveals that even the Falls themselves have an element of constructed entertainment value due to the fact that they’re ‘turned down’ when tourist season is over.)
This inherent contradiction of what is real works well within the noir-ish vision that drives Disappearance on Clifton Hill. Brooding and uneasy, Clifton Hill wants to find the truth behind Abby’s history but, like the character herself, seems to struggle to put the pieces of reality together. Having witnessed an apparent kidnapping in her childhood, Abby’s journey into the past is never as clear-cut as it appears. With every new piece of truth that Abby uncovers, we are given equally compelling evidence not to trust her story. In doing so, Clifton Hill points to a world where truth is shaped by perspective and memory is never fully reliable. Is it possible that Abby imagined her own childhood trauma? Can her memory be trusted, even when her own history proves that she isn’t trustworthy herself? Questions such as these weave a murky narrative web that twists and turns its way to the truth (or, potentially, one version of it). In a world where perspectives and multi-narratives matter, Clifton Hill reminds us that justice can remain somewhat of a moving target and sometimes truth doesn’t always tell the full story.
Beautifully shot and buoyed by solid performances, Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a solid example of modern film noir. By taking his audience into the dark corners of Niagara’s legendary family fun zone, writer/director Shin reframes the audience’s perception of what is real and what is not. In other words, his willingness to shine light on the shadows of truth proves that this film is more than simply ‘smoke and mirrors’.
Disappearance on Clifton Hill unravels the truth in theatres on Friday, February 28th,