Written by James Schultz and director Albert Shin, Disappearance at Clifton Hills is a stylish puzzle box where the enigma matters less than the characters ensnared within it. A noir at its core, this is an exploration about truth and whether Abby (Tuppance Middleton), a destructive and compulsive liar, can muster the authenticity required to solve a 25-year-old crime that has been covered up by authorities. She proves adept at unearthing secrets while many of her own worst come to light, making her a fascinating protagonist whose mental state is the real mystery to be solved.

We get a taste of Abby’s predilection while she’s on a bus home to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and overhears a man describing the significance of his ring to the woman next to him. Abby co-opts that story for future use in a bar when she’s trying to impress. Initially, it’s hard to tell if these fabrications are due to heartbreak. The death of her mother has brought her back and who doesn’t like to juice up their biography when life returns you to your hometown? But, an instant animosity emerges between Abby and her younger sister, Laure (Hannah Gross), and it doesn’t all originate with Abby’s refusal to sign off on the sale of the dilapidated motel that represents their inheritance. Turns out Abby is nostalgic for the good old days she associates with the place, but a memory from her childhood haunts her, and some old Polaroids discovered in a box turn it into a mystery.

During a family vacation when she was a girl, Abby witnessed the violent kidnapping of a badly beaten boy. Pictures from the time show the white muscle car used in the crime and the woman who helped nab the child. Like any good amateur sleuth, Abby hits the microfiche after the local cops rebuff her, and the powerful family of the man who wants to buy her motel, Charlie Lake (Eric Johnson), gets caught up in her unweaving. Lake uses his power to rebuff Abby, who has few allies beyond her sister and the local rescue diver turned space-themed diner owner, Walter (David Cronenberg), who also hosts an area-specific conspiracy theory podcast. But Abby’s need for the truth in this one circumstance equals her constant need to lie, making her a relentless force in the face of long odds. No lead is too small, even if it involves bargain basement magicians on the New York side of Niagara.

Shin and cinematographer Catherine Lutes bathe their nights in shadow and reds while shooting days in grays and blues. They derive a great deal of suspense from Abby’s apparent vulnerability as a woman alone in the darkness. Whether she is crossing the border, drinking in a bar or the sole resident of her motel there is a sense of perpetual danger, a vulnerability reflected in her encounter with the kidnapped boy. There she was a child walking alone in the wood who came upon a terrifying scene. Every moment of her adulthood feels prone for the next terrible encounter, but she’s not dealing with monsters that are subtle enough to stalk.

As for the actors, Middleton drives the film as Abby. She has access to the truth at the core of her character while effortlessly performing the liar. Her portrayal of Abby’s unspecified mental illness is subtle and effecting, but you can never quite tell when you’re being conned. The mystery is purposefully convoluted and whether that’s in service of the film’s unreliable narrator is up to individual interpretation. The film is Lynchian in that aspect and in the small-town weirdness that inhabits the Canadian side of the Falls. The appearance of Cronenberg gives the film a sort of permission for this strangeness. He and Lynch have always been cousins of a sort, and his presence hints at the type of movie you’re in for, and it’s the acclaimed director’s finest performance since serial killer Dr. Phillip K. Decker in the cult classic Nightbreed. Schultz and Shin have constructed a worthy and entertaining tribute to the masters that influenced them, but this is Middleton’s film to shine. There was a time when her performance might propel a small film like this into a higher strata of the popular consciousness. Sadly, those days are gone.

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