Up until about 10 years ago, being a white man in Southeast Asia meant you did pretty much what you pleased and damn the consequences, at least in the realm of fictional cinema. (See Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Beach.”) Often, the characters are thrown into prison on drug trafficking charges and narrowly escape capital punishment, with even a few female protagonists sharing such honors, including Bridget Jones in “The Edge of Reason.”
“River,” directed by Canadian Jamie M. Dagg, offers a wholly different sort of ride. The white men depicted here get neither perks nor privileges — quite the opposite.
Canadian film is having its moment, due in large part to the presence of Xavier Dolan (“I Killed my Mother,” “Laurence Anyways”). Now other young indie filmmakers like Dagg are coming out with well-crafted low-budget gems, and “River” is a compelling example.
Dagg’s super-serious and dedicated protagonist John Lake (Rossif Sutherland) isn’t out for pleasure on the cheap — he’s a volunteer doctor for an NGO in Laos. In fact, John is so serious that his boss Dr. Novella (Sara Botsford), orders him to take some time off because he’s been working way too hard. John reluctantly agrees, and heads to a riverside village where he visits a bar frequented by expats. He plonks himself down at the counter and watches as two Australian men chat up two young local girls, plying them with drinks and getting properly soused themselves.
When it starts to look a bit dodgy, John intervenes a little, but stops himself before it turns ugly. On his way home, however, he passes the beach and sees that one of the Australians has tied up a girl and it’s obvious what he’s about to do to her. This time, John has no qualms about sprinting to the scene and punching the man right in the face.
After what seems to John like a short and effective fist fight, he blacks out (having had quite a few drinks himself). Later, after somehow finding his way back to his room, he discovers in the harsh light of his bathroom that he’s covered in blood, but he can’t remember doing anything brutal. In fact, he can recall very little about what actually happened on the beach.
In the morning the police pound on his door and inform him that a local girl has been raped and a white man found murdered, and they’re there to question everyone who was at the bar that night.
Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald Sutherland and half-brother of Kiefer, pitches his performance at a delicate point between a good man struggling to extricate himself out of a dire situation, and a white man who can’t think outside the entitlement box. He’s can’t remember what happened that night, and he can’t explain why he blacked out. He wants to do the right thing by the local community, but he assumes that the U.S. Embassy will bail him out of any difficult situation because, well, he’s an American citizen, right?
Um, not really — the embassy takes a grim view of the situation, and far from lauding John as a hero who attempted to prevent sexual assault, the staff treat him like a criminal and a fugitive. John decides to make a run for it, reasoning that he can prove his innocence from the road. His one thought is to get out of Asia and make it back to the U.S.
The film’s setting is a brilliant accompaniment to John’s fears and suspicions, especially as the omnipresent Mekong River and the surrounding villages aren’t remotely touristy or attractive. Dagg has a real feel for the area, peeling away the layers of tropical fantasy to expose the brutal reality underneath.
It isn’t pretty, and the only thing John has going for him is ditching the entitlement mentality and relying on his own moral code and common sense. The film is jagged around the edges, but its raw, unpolished appeal is real. It makes you think there are pockets of unfathomable evil and unpredictable chaos out there, and it’s to “River’s” credit that the terror looks so darkly seductive.