Review: Suspicious River (dir Lynne Stopkewich, 2000)

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2000]

After her delicate and very Canadian debut, Kissed, focusing on a picnoleptic female necrophiliac, Lynne Stopkewich has turned to another literary adaptation for her new film, inhabiting another sexually transgressive woman, this time one diving into the depths of her self and of sexual expiation. Using the same creative team and lead actress, Molly Parker, Stopkewich has forged another striking feature, simmering down Laura Kasischke’s novel to a strong central trajectory, but while only occasionally reaching the tightness and drive of the first film, she manages to invest the unravelling knot of the story with a determined and understated feeling of imminent threat. (Spoilers ahead…)

(Plot spoiler warning:)
Molly Parker plays Leila, a receptionist at a small-town motel, who sells herself to pudgy, bloated men for the price of their room. She seems to do this, in forensic close-ups of shoes, hands and empty spaces, without any real end in mind, hiding the money in her jewellery box, in the uncommunicative home she shares with her apparently anorexic husband. We are introduced, in what appears initially to be a rather lame analogy of Leila’s life, to a young girl who befriends Leila while feeding swans on the river. Like Leila, the girl has a complicated family situation (her mother cheating on her salesman father with his brother, and also with her lawyer). Cue the inevitable flying-away of swans.

Gary Jensen (Callum Keith Rennie), seemingly a drifter, arrives at the motel and has Leila come up to his room, where he hits and rapes her. Something (indicated by a trademark Stopkewich burn-to-white) shifts in her, and although she initially rejects his apologetic overtures, the offer of $200 and Gary’s now gentle and attentive manner convince her to resume their liaison. The rapture she seems to feel at someone taking time and care over her physical pleasure cements her relationship with Gary, and before long, she plans to leave with him for an unknown destination. Gary suggests that they spend the night at his house, where one of his friends is waiting, and leaves her to rest while he goes into town. Gary has told his friend to sleep with Leila, to which she assents almost automatically. When they have finished, she gets up to find a stream of cars arriving at the house, and she is told that Gary is in fact a pimp of sorts, and she is expected to get back in the bedroom. She lapses into almost catatonic unresponsiveness, and is beaten by one of the men, but when he gets out a knife, she jerks into it, and cuts her neck. The men panic, but one of them bandages her neck, and helps her escape to the river. As we move towards the climax of the film, we realise that, in the little girl, Leila is in fact meeting her childhood self. She escapes back to the other side of Suspicious River, and lives to see the swans come back.

Suspicious River is at least as intense as, and more emotionally excoriating than Kissed, and shows Stopkewich expanding her vocabulary and her range (although the burn-to-white seems to have become a key indicative device in her vocabulary). Her films thus far have had a very definite feel, but seem at times too similar to other work, distinguished partly by the perceived extremity of the subject matter. While Kissed showed an engaging and keen Campionesque eye for how solitary, coherent yet odd childhood can be, the dreamy feel of Suspicious River and the neat device of looping past with present contribute to a film that leaves the viewer feeling as passive and detached as Leila is through her own compulsive encounters in darkened rooms, yet compelled to dwell on her descent into hell long afterwards.

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