The quiet malevolence of nature has supplied an atmospheric undercurrent in Australian screen mysteries stretching back to Picnic at Hanging Rock, and while the crimes at the heart of Downriver are pinned on human perpetrators, the setting plays a major role in this visually arresting mood piece. While the well-acted film’s unselfconscious depiction of male desire and homoeroticism is also distinctive, it’s undone by muddy storytelling and a shortage of emotional payoff. Still, there’s enough that’s intriguing here to mark first-time writer-director Grant Scicluna as someone to watch.
Teenage James (Reef Ireland) is introduced on the eve of his release from juvenile prison, unable to provide answers to the grieving mother of the drowned boy he was convicted of killing, whose body was never recovered. He bids a tender farewell to his cellmate and lover, and is transferred to a halfway house with strict parole instructions. His mother Paige (Kerry Fox) is happy in a new relationship and reluctant to invite him back into her life, while his unseen father has offered financial help but no contact.
Problematic but not lacking in promise.
James’ uncertainties concerning the boy’s death are made worse by his having blacked out at the time due to an epileptic seizure. Driven by a need to understand what happened and atone for his role in it, he heads back to the sleepy rural community on the Yarra River outside Melbourne where the tragedy occurred.
Despite a restraining order forbidding him from being in the same area as his former childhood friend Anthony (Tom Green), who was with him when the boy was killed, James settles into his family’s old cabin. Anthony is a prize creep, trading nude shots or sex for favors, and seducing Damien (Charles Grounds), a sensitive kid from the nearby caravan park, seemingly less out of attraction than predatory power. He taunts James for the weakness that made him open up to the police back when they were 10 during the investigation. But when James starts sifting through the past, he discovers something more disturbing than a dangerous game that got out of hand, digging up secrets that make Anthony’s violent family suddenly nervous.
Scicluna’s weak point is his screenwriting, which aims for a kind of Southern Hemisphere gothic without quite nailing that tone, especially as increasingly lurid details emerge. A slow-burn drama like this needs at some point to ditch the ambiguities and settle on clear motivations and resolutions. Much of what happens in Downriver, however, remains sketchy and improbable. And a hard-bitten local loner (played by Aussie film veteran Helen Morse) feels more like an attempt to find a Down Under equivalent of an American backwoods type than a fully integrated character with real bearing on the story.
But the director knows how to create an enveloping mood using only diegetic music. He punctuates quiet stretches with jolts of violence, shuffles scenes in unsettling ways and overlaps sound from one encounter into the next to echo the confusion in James’ head. Cinematographer Laszlo Baranyai makes effective use of the hazy natural light, bathing the film in muted yellows, browns and greens, and capturing the brooding qualities of the still waters, littered with the gnarled corpses of fallen gum trees. The sense of a tranquil place masking murky behavior is palpable. And Scicluna takes a refreshing approach to the sexuality of his young male characters, having it inform their connections but never commenting on it, aside from a homophobic slur or two from the margins.
The bruised interiority of Ireland’s performance gives the film a compelling emotional center as it wades through questions of culpability, remorse and redemption. Even if James remains somewhat opaque as a character through to the final scenes, his need to take ownership for the mistakes of his past is clear. Grounds has affecting moments, and while Green’s Anthony initially presents as a classic bad seed, manipulating everyone around him, his vulnerability becomes apparent when seen in the context of his awful all-male family.
Fox conveys the painful conflicts of a mother trying to move on with her life but still deeply connected to her son and needing to forgive him, while Robert Taylor, as Paige’s trucker boyfriend, embodies ideals of kindness and compassion that fit with the film’s examination of human fallibility.
Cast: Reef Ireland, Kerry Fox, Robert Taylor, Helen Morse, Tom Green, Charles Grounds, Steve Mouzakis, Lee Cormie, Lester Ellis Jr., Alicia Gardiner, Shannon Glowacki
Production companies: Happening Films
Director-screenwriter: Grant Scicluna
Producer: Jannine Barnes
Executive producers: Kristian Molire, Shaun Miller, Anthony Nagle
Director of photography: Laszlo Baranyai
Production designer: Penny Southgate
Costume designer: Michael Chisholm
Editor: Anthony Cox
Casting: Jane Norris
Sales: Level K
No rating, 99 minutes