Australian director Grant Scicluna’s first feature-length film, Downriver (2015), is a tangled, tense and mercurial work. The director, who garnered significant attention with his short films Hurt’s Rescue (2014) and The Wilding (2012), was among those at the film’s premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival last week.
The story follows James (played by The Wilding’s Reef Ireland), newly released from prison after having drowned a child when he was nine. Committed to atonement, James and his mother (performed with palpable rawness by Kerry Fox) return to rural Victoria in an effort to find the victim’s body, which was never recovered.
The film winds itself around the scene of the crime, with every character grappling to understand the events leading to the child’s death. The characters are weighed down with things they can’t say, so the narrative unfurls through visual imagery instead.
Modern Australian drama has developed its own language of realism, where images assume the weight of the story and the dialogue remains sparing. Downriver doesn’t so much use this style as perfect it; in one instance James’ relationship with his cellmate is revealed in a single shot of their matching friendship bracelets.
This nuance of approach appeals to the eyes and ears as much as the mind. And on occasion, when the audio track drifts out of sync with the visuals, the viewer is forced into a different way of looking at events on screen. This clever craftsmanship belies the fact that this is Scicluna’s feature-film debut; Downriver has the feel of a far more experienced creative talent.
There’s a lilting poise to much of the cinematography, a kind of quiet grace. Shot by Lázló Baranyai, the film’s images pause and move slowly, before suddenly spinning into sharply edited montages.
Like the titular river, the film drifts through its moments until it whirls into eddies of revelation. Refreshingly absent are the red-dust desserts, postcard beaches or Sydney suburbs that so often feature in Australian films. In their place is the lush green and murk of the Victorian river system, and the stark sameness of holiday caravan parks.
Scicluna uses the narrative tradition of criminals returning to the scene of their crime, but he veers from this tradition with a cast that is predominantly gay. The sexuality of the characters is complicated and ever-present in their interactions, yet it’s not a focal point for the characters themselves.
Instead, it’s a means of turning them into co-conspirators, victims and protectors. As such, the film marks a maturation in Australian queer cinema’s sensibilities; it presents a story that is both queer and universally resonant.
It has a lot in common with the New Zealand television series Top of the Lake (2013), which took a similar story and viewed it through a feminist lens. Both works allow subtle politics to play out in the background of a larger narrative; a sophisticated approach that allows audiences to identify with the narrative and its characters on many levels.
Downriver also makes broader cinematic references to Gothic thrillers, and there are strong echoes too of The Boys, Lantana (1998), and Animal Kingdom (2010). At the same time, the film’s aesthetics share the simplicity and tenderness of Lynne Ramsay or Michael Haneke.
Although it was filmed in 29 days on a shoestring budget, its bush setting and narrative twists give it an expansive feel. It is a visually stunning piece, with superb performances and an utterly gripping story.
Downriver is, in every sense of the word, an Australian film. It received its first grant from MIFF’s premiere fund, was buoyed by Screen Australia, and finished with the contributions of hundreds of non-industry folk through Pozible.
It also conveys a uniquely Australian sensibility, at equal turns calm and intense. As such, it’s a film that we all have a stake in. With any luck, the film will garner deserved international success and be taken under the parochial ownership that Australian audiences designate to our other bright stars.
The audience on Wednesday’s screening spoke with evident pride, pleased to see the Australian Gothic genre find new ground in Scicluna’s work.
Downriver screens at the Melbourne international Film Festival on August 14 and 16. Details here.