TIFF ’19 Review: Albert Shin’s “Clifton Hill” Plays Like a House on Fire

“I trust you not to burn my house down…” Laura (Hannah Gross) tells her sister Abby (Tuppence Middleton) in a wan attempt to suggest there is even a level of trust between the siblings in “Clifton Hill,” Albert Shin’s diverting whodunit in which it becomes clear quickly no one should be trusted. It’s telling that no less than David Cronenberg plays the local historian in Albert Shin’s Niagara Falls noir, and Abby’s been aware since the age of seven of the shady characters in her neck of the woods, having seen a kidnapping that she didn’t exactly know how to process at the time. Two decades later, she unearths some clues while digging through her mother’s things upon her passing and rather than grieve, she attempts to resurrect the cold case on her own when the local police can’t be bothered with pursuing a crime they have no record for in the first place.

As a postmodern spin of Dashiell Hammett where one can’t resist the lure of a mystery in a world that seems to have none left, “Clifton Hill” strongly resembles the recent work of Aaron Katz, whose skillful genre deconstructions “Gemini” and “Cold Weather” bent plot mechanics and stylistic elements such as the score just up to their breaking point to deliver old fashioned thrills in new, exciting ways, often drawing on an intimate sense of place. It’s clear in how Shin reimagines Niagara as a boulevard of broken dreams with co-writer James Schultz that he’s spent considerable time wondering what could be lurking underneath the pleasant tourist town that’s long past it’s prime, full of casinos and no one with enough money to gamble in them. As it turns out, Abby’s the only one around who appears to be taking risks, potentially sabotaging a sale of her mother’s motel, which is valued primarily for the land, to Charles Lake III, the current end of the wealthy bloodline that’s long governed local affairs, by keeping her detective work going with potentially far-reaching implications for the self-anointed royal family.

Middleton has the right amount of gumption as Abby, putting on a brave face even as she starts to get into situations where she’s clearly over her head and while the stakes are relatively low to make it all the more entertaining when she’s unable to dial back her passion, Middleton‘s convincing turn becomes infectious in terms of realizing there really is something significant on the line. It helps that Shin makes Abby’s investigation every bit as intriguing to an audience as it is to her, not only doing well to involve Cronenberg as an avuncular podcast host, but following her out to space-themed restaurants and piquing her interest in an ‘80s era vaudeville act The Magnificent Moulins, who are used to making things vanish onstage, but Abby wonders what role they may have had in the disappearing act she witnessed as a child. If it’s the unknown that stays with Abby in “Clifton Hill,” it’s how well you get to know her that ultimately sticks and like her, you’re bound to get a little obsessed with finding out more.

“Clifton Hill” will screen once more at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9th at the Scotiabank Theater at 10 pm.

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