Secrets and Revelations
“Downriver” is filled with grim secrets and slowly surfacing revelations from Australian writer-director Grant Scicluna with his first feature film. James (Reef Ireland) has just been released from prison after serving time for drowning a little boy when he himself was just a child. The boy’s body was never found, and James has spent his life being guilt-ridden and haunted by questions about what really happened that day. He returns to the rural community where the crime took place and is determined to find the body. As he searches, he is confronted by bullies and sexual predators from his past. He risks punishment he risks by breaking his parole and is threatened with violence from the characters that emerge all around him.
This is a film filled with tension and we feel that there is something sinister beneath what we see on the screen and eventually discover that this feeling comes from a network of abuse, exploitation, blackmail and desire. The suspense and the tension that we feel come from layers of flashbacks and dialogue that the portrayals of the actors amplify. We are taken to very dark places as James looks for the truth.
We see how unreliable memory can be but we also see a portrayal of homosexual relationships as every bit as complex as their heterosexual counterparts. We meet James the eve of his release from juvenile prison. He is unable to provide answers to the grieving mother of the drowned boy he was convicted of killing whose body was never recovered. He says goodbye 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.
James’ uncertainties concerning the boy’s death are made worse by his having blacked out at the time due to an epileptic seizure. He needs 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, Australia where the tragedy occurred.
There is a restraining order on James that forbids from being in the same area as his former childhood friend Anthony (Tom Green), who was with him when the boy was killed (and who James thinks is the one who killed the boy). James moves into his family’s old cabin. Anthony is really something else; trading nude shots or sex for favors. He seduced Damien (Charles Grounds), a sensitive kid from the nearby caravan park and we see his power as a predator.
Anthony taunts James for the weakness that made him open up to the police back when they were 10-years-old during the investigation. When James starts going through the past, he discovers something more disturbing than a dangerous game that got out of hand. He comes upon secrets that, make Anthony’s violent family suddenly nervous.
Ireland’s powerful performance as James gives the film a compelling emotional center as it moves through questions of culpability, remorse and redemption. Even if James seems to be a somewhat opaque as a character through to the final scenes, his need to take ownership for the mistakes of his past is clear. Green’s Anthony is initially seen as a classic bad seed, manipulating those around him. However, his vulnerability becomes clear when we see him in the context of his terrible all-male family.
Fox beautifully 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. Her boyfriend represents the ideals of kindness and compassion that fit with the film’s examination of human fallibility.
The film is a bit too self-consciously oblique, and at times confusingly mysterious. The final scene is so burdened by symbol that I found myself being frustrated. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant first film and I am sure that as time passes, we will be hearing a great deal about writer-director Grant Scicluna as someone to watch.
He is able to create an enveloping mood and how to punctuate his story with the right and necessary methods to keep his audience interested (or spellbound).