Clifton Hill, the third directorial feature from Canadian filmmaker Albert Shin, is a chilly, twisty mystery that makes his hometown of Niagara Falls look like a lesser version of Las Vegas or Atlantic City. There’s plenty of sin to be found in Clifton Hill (named after the famous tourist trap that greets visitors just past the Canadian border), but none of the glitz and glamour.
Tuppence Middleton gives a layered, slowly building, and captivating performance as Abby, a young woman who returns to Niagara Falls following the death of her motel owning mother. Abby’s estranged and vastly more stable sister, Laure (Hannah Gross), wants to sell the decaying and outmoded property to a wealthy, local land developer (Eric Johnson), but the returning daughter has other plans. She secretly squats at the motel and uses it as the home base for an investigation she’s carrying out tied to a kidnapping she thinks she witnessed on a family outing when she was seven years old. The incident, which involved a kid with one eye and a couple of thugs with a tire iron, has clearly haunted Abby, but as with many mysteries, a lot of the investigation is being conducted by a somewhat unreliable protagonist who might not understand her own motivations and obsessions.
Clifton Hill finds Shin leaning heavily into genre influence this time out, but also never abandoning the gritty, earthy tones and visuals that made his other works as a director and writer so visceral. The plot is old school in its approach, full of red herrings, oddities (including a pair of magicians and the tiger that’s part of their act), and even a true crime podcaster played rather brilliantly by filmmaker David Cronenberg in a key supporting role.
Clifton Hill is suitably tense and unnerving, and it’s fun to watch Shin and Middleton play all of this out, but there’s also plenty in here about the nature of privilege, longing, trauma, and our sometimes tenuous ties to our hometowns. It’s also, quite naturally, one of the definitive films to ever be made about the thin, decaying veneer of respectability that covers Niagara Falls. It’s the kind of story told by someone who clearly loves and hates where they came from in equal, fascinating measure. It’s also just nice to see a straight up mystery for a change. It’s a genre that live on through television and print, but seems to be a dying breed on the big screen. Clifton Hill is classical and ingenious in equal measure.