The first feature film is always a step as important as it is difficult; director and writer Jamie M. Dagg, debuting this year with River, might have just laid the ground for a solid career. Although River is by no means perfect, it reveals a promising director; however, the script fails to convince. Dagg will need to put as much effort into writing as he does into directing if he wishes to keep doing both in his future projects.
River is the story of John Lake (Rossif Sutherland), a volunteer doctor in Laos. As he’s young and has a lot to learn, his naivety will be the source of his problems. Forced to take a leave of absence after a quarrel with a superior, he goes travelling in one of the many remote islands of the country. Once there, he tries to protect a woman from sexual assault, but when the assailant is found dead the thriller kicks in, in a variation on the ‘wrong man at the wrong time’ theme. John will have to flee the police and a massive manhunt in the hope of escaping the country.
The film is beautifully shot on location – a bold move for a newcomer, which certainly paid off. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the gorgeous east Asian landscape or the colour of its sunsets, or not feel the stifling humidity on your skin when John runs across chaotic cities or villages still half engulfed in the jungle. Dagg takes his time showing us the customs and the way of life of Laos, extremely different from our Western standards. A few times too many, however, he loses focus on what matters: the location only partially serves the story, and John and his journey (turned into escape) seem more of a tool to show the surroundings. This is a mistake for a thriller with such a strong premise: a telling sign of a plot too thin, with a second act filled with anti-climactic sequences, barely exploited to raise the tension. Sutherland doesn’t do a very convincing job playing John either, while his character barely grows at all, except for the finale, which takes too long a leap and feels ambiguous and underdeveloped.
River lacks a charismatic, active protagonist to be as engrossing as The Fugitive, and is certainly not as well-structured and well-thought out as Three Days of the Condor. Nonetheless, this first step for director Dagg will hopefully lead to new opportunities to refine his style and express his full potential in the future.
River screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2016.
Words by Davide Prevarin