James (Reef Ireland) has just been released from a Youth Detention Centre, having been locked up when he was an adolescent for his involvement in the drowning death of another child. However, due to having an epileptic fit on that day, he doesn’t know what happened to the body, which disappeared and therefore left many open questions, not least from the kid’s mother.
Despite being told his probation is dependent on not returning to where the events took place, he heads there on a determined quest to discover what happened and where the body ended up. Most believe the dead child was washed down the river and cannot ever be found, but James thinks something else might have happened.
His return brings him back into the sphere of the unpleasant Anthony, who it appears may also have been involved in the boy’s death but escaped punishment. With James’ mother (Kerry Fox) pretending she’s his aunt, and James’ quest taking ever darker turns, he begins to understand that even more disturbing things may have been going on than solely the drowning on an innocent child.
Downriver certainly doesn’t want to tackle easy subjects. A film where the ‘hero’ is a possible child murderer is tough one to get the tone right, but Downriver manages it, making it about a quest for redemption for something even the main character knows cannot be truly redeemed. The film takes the viewer ever deeper down the rabbit hole into a dark and sometimes horrifying world, leavened only by brief moments of hope and tenderness.
For example, it contrasts Anthony’s aggressive and exploitative sexual use of another young man, with James’ more tender intimacy, while James’s brief glimpses of connection and domesticity are pushed up against the general hatred of him, as well as another cruelly exploitative family where things are truly screwed up. It’s the sort of film that could have easily seemed nasty and exploitative, but thanks to an excellent central performance from Reef Ireland and a plot that keeps the viewer hooked – even as it takes ever more disturbing turns – it works brilliantly. Sustained by a tense and macabre tone, Downriver is a massive step above most other gay-themed fare – indeed, there aren’t many other dark thrillers like this that have included gay content and didn’t seem to be doing it for shock value or for other negative reasons.
This is Aussie director Grant Scicluna’s first feature film, having cut his teeth on short films such as the Iris Prize winning The Wilding. Indeed, while not a direct sequel to The Wilding, that short feels like the jumping-off point for Downriver, as it also starred Reef Ireland and centred on a young man just about to leave a Youth Detention Centre. However, from there they go in different directions plot-wise, but share an interest in how darkness and tenderness are both very close together and very far apart.
There are a few aspects that stretch plausibility, but thanks to the sustained tone, and its quest for answers no matter where it takes you (reminiscent of George Sluzier’s The Vanishing), this doesn’t matter too much. Some may wish a few more loose ties were sorted by the end, but Downriver successfully answers the key questions it poses, while leaving things open enough to say that darkness can’t easily be wrapped up and rid from the world with a few simple actions. Indeed, while it does offer glimpses of hope, there are also suggestions that it is easy for darkness to breed darkness, while goodness is always an uphill struggle.
Overall Verdict: Downriver is a film that will be too dark for some, but for those who don’t mind heading for some gloomy places, it’s a taut, absorbing thriller and a tremendous feature debut from Grant Scicluna.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac