Sunburned and coated in grime, sweat and anxiety, Dr. John Lake is desperate enough to contemplate one last adrenaline-spiked push through exhaustion and make the illegal swim across the Mekong River border to Thailand.
The case of Dr. Richard Kimble, one of the screen's more famous fugitives, was clear-cut. Here, however, there's no mistaken identity or hyperbole about heroism – Lake is the rare fugitive from justice who is not an innocent. Rossif Sutherland (who's previously played Jesus and Nostradamus) is the everyman medic here, a well-meaning volunteer doctor working in a rural Laotian clinic and plunged, in one fateful moment's decision, in extremis.
That realistic ambivalence is one way that River, writer-director Jamie Dagg's first feature, immediately outpaces its modest means – although the fast-moving thriller, a Canadian co-production shot on location in Laos, picks up slowly.
In hospital conditions far from ideal, Lake finds himself admonishing a patient with a distended liver; but the empty booze cans seen later on the good doctor's own bedside table suggest he's no slouch in that department himself. After the emergency surgery of a chest wound ends in argument, the doctor in charge (Sara Botsford) reprimands and suspends Lake. He catches a chatty ride south to a vacation spot with the clinic's delivery driver.
From here, plans go awry and the film's pace escalates quickly. In his goodnatured way, Lake befriends the local bartender and spends the night drinking at the bar, where he sees a young woman with a pair of Australian tourists; later, as he's stumbling back to his hotel, he crosses paths with them and gets into a fight – he's intervened, but too late in her assault. Flashes forward and back in time flesh out the contours of Lake's drunken memory of the incident. How different his dip in the river the night before is from the morning after – one leisurely and idyllic, the other frantic – but both constant with the sibilance of cicadas and the thrum of the ambient score. It's soon heavy on the drums of creeping panic.
In a demanding role light on dialogue, Sutherland's rangy, loping physicality serves both the character and the action well – camera and fugitive are seldom at rest, and on the move in tense, extended bursts whenever an opportunity presents itself.
The location supports the bleak atmosphere. Cinematographer Adam Marsden films crepuscular hours, or darkness suffused in a green glow, and even daylight hours are sour and dim. Drab interiors are all alike – the U.S. embassy, where Lake eventually turns for help, is scarcely more welcoming than a jail block, where it's impossible to know night from day.
The effect of the tropical humidity is plain in Lake's fatigue, and Dagg's scenes make good use of the chaotic environment. You get the sense that as much as was planned in life, just as much is clandestine. But more than this, the random events and elements of chance twisting the unpredictable plot seem realistic.
Lake's is just one of the stories in the film's frame, even if he doesn't notice the others (like what may be misappropriation of clinic supplies, for example, a fact only glimpsed in a side mirror). Even the intricacies and incompatibilities of the Laotian and Thai legal systems sustain the suspense more than you would expect.
Until Dagg's final act, that is, when a twist forces a moral reckoning that the movie had adroitly managed to avoid.