John is an American doctor living in Laos who ends up on the run from the authorities after intervening in the sexual assault of a young woman and is subsequently accused of murder when the perpetrator is found dead.
As plots go, River’s is an incredibly basic and straightforward one, but unfortunately it wastes the opportunity of its setup’s simplicity to properly explore the themes it introduces and instead focuses too much on a very slim story.
Even though in Laos a giant bearded white American tends to stand out in a crowd, John is able to move through each location with few people noticing him, and when he is identified the relative ease with which he escapes stops it from ever feeling like he is in much danger, resulting in a dearth of the unrelenting tension that should permeate a film such as this.
Unlike many man-on-the-run films, John is actually guilty of what he is accused of, and the intention of the film seemed to be to explore the morality of his actions when compared to those he was attempting to prevent. Specifically, it attempts to invite discussion on whether one violent act is justified in the prevention of another, but affords few opportunities for John to voice the ethics of his actions, thus leaving the film’s thematic undertones woefully underdeveloped.
What little philosophising there is might have been more effective if the morality in question was more debatably ambiguous in nature (there are certainly people out there who would argue that beating a rapist to death is not a question of morality, but obligation). Additionally, if the reports of the dead man in question had mentioned his also being a sex offender, it might have allowed for greater exploration into the justifiability of John’s actions and offered the possibility for a degree of ambiguity over whether or not the authorities actually want to catch him, something that may not have been too surprising in such a prolifically corrupt nation.
It’s an interesting choice to set the film in Laos rather than the far more popular (and geographically adjacent) Thailand, and the cinematography and location work are largely all the film has to recommend it. The nation’s undeveloped landscape looks beautiful through the film’s lens, portraying a nation of verdant jungle, dusty roads, and sparse buildings, all lit by the flare of fading light reflecting off the mighty Mekong river, the film’s titular waterway that doesn’t really play enough of a role to warrant referencing it in the title. It’s just a shame that such captivating scenery doesn’t also extent to the story taking place against it.
What attempts to be a complex and ambiguous morality thriller merely ambles along with virtually nothing in the way of exploration of the themes it wants to present, leaving us with a substandard chase thriller, which in spite of the relentless nature of its protagonist’s plight is barely worthy of either of those designations.
RIVER / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JAMIE M DAGG / SCREENPLAY: JAMIE M DAGG / STARRING: ROSSIF SUTHERLAND, SARA BOTSFORD, DOUANGMANY SOLIPHANH, VITHAYA PANSRINGARM / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW