starring Molly Parker, Callum Keith Rennie, Mary Kate Welsh, Joel Bissonnette
screenplay by Lynne Stopkewich, based on the novel by Laura Kasischke
directed by Lynne Stopkewich
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Suspicious River is the dying of the light against a rage. While it knows full well that its heroine is bored, damaged, and begging for some escape, it can't bring itself to pull the protagonist out of her doldrums; instead, it leads her down a degrading primrose path until disaster drives her back into the arms of safe ennui. Though the film feigns interest in her mission to ditch her boring hometown and ugly past, it's largely interested in demonstrating the futility of her efforts and leaves her with Margaret Atwood's model of the Canadian condition: "Endurance, survival, but no victory."
Director Lynne Stopkewich's first mistake lies in concealing her protagonist's identity. It is barely established that Leila Murray (the ubiquitous Molly Parker) is a dejected motel receptionist when she begins her descent: through a penetrating stare, she gathers that a male customer is looking for some action and decides to service him. She doesn't tell her emaciated husband, of course, because he's part of the tedious problem that keeps her down, and she doesn't voice whatever psychological need is being satisfied: Even in brief narration, she is vague and guileless, the only clue to her mindset being the icy-blue filters that scream "Northern alienation." She's so badly drawn and structurally undercut that she's inadvertently objectified, trapping us in a voyeuristic position that's uncomfortable to adopt.
This being a Canadian film, Leila's autonomous decision must have dire repercussions. Almost as soon she has arrived at the room of a customer, Gary Jensen (Callum Keith Rennie), she finds herself being roughed up; later, the penitent man comes back to apologize. But we know that she feels the need to be degraded, and that nothing good can come from this. Stopkewich, being the good liberal she is, condescendingly assumes that her lead's masochism is something to abolish--an attitude that Catherine Breillat has exploded in a number of her films, all of them far more interesting than this one. So as Leila and Gary become closer (he attacks a john who abused her), and when they decide to run off with each other, the colour blue becomes deeper. We know disillusionment is right around the corner.
When Suspicious River suddenly decides to fill in Leila's identity blanks, it's with blunt and obvious symbolism. A little girl, with whom she has been talking on her smoke breaks, is merely a projection of her past: we find Leila's adult actions interspersed with memories of her dysfunctional family, with the little girl playing the part of Leila. Not only does this add a frustrating sense of denial to our heroine, clearly ignoring the signs of danger the audience experiences as billboards, but it also lends the film a fatalistic quality that seals her doom. Instead of creating an affirmative change, she is simply trying to outrun the facts of her life that will eventually overtake her. Resistance is futile, as your past will always keep you from getting ahead.
My point is not that failure is unacceptable. It is just as fruitless to adopt the success-at-all-costs ethic of American culture, in which one relentless Horatio Alger wannabe climbs to the top on a pile of loser corpses; success unearned is as good as sadism, which is as bad as Canadian masochism. But there is no anger in Stopkewich's vision, and no real attempt to feel her protagonist's pain. There is only a dull nod in the direction of acceptance, saying it's better to be kept indoors than to risk running with the wolves outside. It's a bunker mentality that deserves to be plucked from its underground shelter and allowed to breathe the fresh air. Originally published: April 7, 2002.