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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Downriver ****

Starring: Reef Ireland, Thom Green, Charles Grounds

Director: Grant Scicluna

There’s something quite refreshing about this Australian indie thriller. You see, the thing about gay people is... well, they’re like everybody else. And where heterosexuality is generally incidental to the plot of a film, then so too can be homosexuality. Downriver is a taut, tightly wound thriller about guilt and loyalty, in which its leads are gay, but the sexual undertones only serve to emphasise the tension, without trying to make any other point that would distract from its tightly wound plot.

James (Ireland) has served a prison sentence for the murder of a young boy at a holiday park, which he believes he was responsible for when he was a child. However, due to suffering from epilepsy, he sometimes experiences blackouts and he suspects that due to these, there is something from that day that he cannot remember. Especially because the body has never been found. Upon his release, he returns to the park and tracks down his old friend Anthony (Green) who was present when the child died, only to realise that the whole situation is a lot more complicated than he initially thought. Meanwhile, their new friend Damien (Grounds) finds himself torn between the two boys as he realises that he has been plunged into a very messy situation.

Ireland is terrific in the lead role, showing the weariness of a young man who has spent most of his life behind bars but who is now determined to find out the truth where others had failed. From the start, his outward apathy clearly masks an inner confusion that he has had to keep concealed his whole life. In stark contrast, Green’s Anthony is a volatile and violent character, whose sexualised behaviour makes him both compelling and repellent as he lives on without suffering any consequences from that day. Anthony is the only person who really knows what happened and Green subsequently gives him the perfect quantities of both charm and malevolence.

The music underpins the tension throughout Downriver, with low throbbing notes that emphasise the confusion of James’ fragmented memory, building an almost unbearably despondent atmosphere. Visually, the film does little to glorify the scenery in this holiday spot, where fear and grief have overwhelmed whatever draw that place ever had. It may well be a place of beauty, but all we are shown is the inside of cabins, undergrowth and the secluded rundown corners that Anthony inhabits. Despite the sunlight, this is a cold film, laden with the misery of its history, its colours dulled with blue, green and bleached beige hues. Aesthetically, this is, similar to Winter’s Bone or Mud, with an earnestness in its stark realism.

As James begins to uncover the secrets from that day, the relationships within his family deteriorate. However, the script is sparse, relying more on expressions, looks and lingering camera angles to depict more than what the characters are actually saying, avoiding a descent into the clichéd tropes that could come so easily to this type of film. But despite this measured restraint, the film’s pace does not suffer, instead resulting in a heightened, seething suspense. As a result, Downriver is a dark and disturbing film, in which someone who has been done a great wrong looks poised to be dealt another blow, solely due to his quest for vindication. Tense and disquieting, this is not a film to be watched alone.

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