Of all the films we saw at the 2015 Whistler Film Festival, River was my favourite, and apparently, I’m not alone. When the bulk of WFF’s awards were handed out yesterday, River won the Borsos Competion for Best Canadian Feature Film!
As well, writer/director Jamie M. Dagg was honoured twice in connection with River, for Best Director and Best Screenplay (naturally). River’s lead, Rossif Sutherland (Donald’s son and Kiefer’s half-brother) also received an honourable mention in the Best Performance category. And when the People’s Choice Award is announced tomorrow, I will be rooting for River to win that too, because it’s awesome.
What was it about this movie that grabbed me? There’s so much there to love. It’s a Canadian-Laos co-production, the first of its kind and the first western movie to be filmed in the southeast Asian country of Laos (if you’re rough on your geography, Laos is nestled between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar). It’s hard to call anything we see onscreen beautiful, exactly, but the surroundings almost become a character of their own. The title, though generic, is fitting because the seemingly omnipresent water is an obstacle that our protagonist grapples with again and again.
The movie starts in a frenzied emergency room and the tension only builds from there. Every sight and every sound tightened the knot in my stomach as I watched the action unfold from there. The cinematography is fantastic, the editing is tight, the score is amazing, and Rossif Sutherland is a revelation as Dr. John Lake. Dr. Lake is one of the doctors in that frenzied opening scene, and the outcome results in him being asked to take some time away. After a night of drinking at a vacation spot in south Laos, Dr. Lake witnesses a sexual assault and from there everything goes to hell.
Rossif commands our attention right away. He’s got more than a little Jack Bauer in him, frenetic, unstoppable, and big enough to have eaten Kiefer whole. But Rossif is clearly set on making his own name rather than relying on his lineage, and in River he delivers a star-making performance. From the start, Dr. Lake is not a super likable guy, but Rossif makes us root for him anyway. We’re with him all the way through his journey and Rossif owns every single frame.
At all times, Rossif is an overpowering presence in the best of ways, and it is clear that the foundation for his stellar performance is Jamie Dagg’s work behind-the-scenes. It’s hard to believe this is a Canadian movie and even harder to believe this is Jamie’s first feature film. The action scenes, and there are many, flow naturally, are perfectly staged and suck the viewer right in. Despite the fact we know in our gut that this can’t end well, we follow Rossif eagerly, because he and River are so compelling. And just when you think it can’t get any better/worse, Dagg’s script delivers a fantastic payoff that elevates Dr. Lake and this movie to a whole new level, which did not even seem possible because what came before was already so great.
During the Q&A, we were told that this movie is being given a wide release in the spring of 2016. How wide seems yet to be determined, but this is a movie you need to track down and experience. Because River will take you on a wild ride that you won’t soon forget. Don’t miss it!