suspicious river (2002)

director: lynne stopkewich

molly paker, callum keith rennie, mary kate welsh, joel bissonnette

In movie vocabulary, “small town” is often shorthand for corruption, tedium, conformity, hypocrisy and quiet desperation. While it’s not entirely impossible that there might be a quaint but dreary riverside town set among menacing mountains named Suspicious River, it just feels like the name alone stacks the cards against the place, and everyone living there.

Judging from her feathered hair and extensive wardrobe of distressed denim, Molly Parker’s Leila is not only trapped in an unfortunately named town, but in the depths of the Eighties. Unhappily married (to a male anorexic - a loaded subplot that merely hovers in the background, only adding to the cumulative misery of the setting) and working behind the desk at a motel just outside town, Leila has taken to servicing the male guests for money, with some vague ambition to escape to a better life. When Gary (Callum Keith Rennie) books Leila’s services along with a room, we know immediately that she’s found the adoring yet dangerous “bad boy” that will push her life to the precipice.

It’s a flaw of films like Lynne Stopkewich’s Suspicious River that they strive to act like this venerable plotline - fallen woman meets bad man, finds hard-won redemption - is an entirely new thing, while frontloading the atmosphere of their story with so much foreboding and melancholy menace that the viewer is as unlikely to be surprised as if they’d sat down to watch a formula action film.

Casting Molly Parker as Leila was the most perfect, yet most self-defeating move possible. Parker has made a career of playing picturesque but tortured young women in films like Stopkewich’s Kissed, Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World, and The Five Senses. A pretty, even stunning actress, she nevertheless brings a stillness to every role that subverts the deeper task of eliciting audience sympathy. Compare Parker to someone like Holly Hunter, Emily Watson, or Frances McDormand - actresses who convey depth and emotional movement even when hobbled by the worst script or most inept direction; next to them, Parker radiates opaqueness, a blithe inscrutability that makes someone like Leila seem merely perverse and self-destructive.

The film’s marketing hangs on a phrase - “passion runs deep” - that seems more suited to some simmering melodrama than this moody downer. Whatever emotions make in onto the screen, they’re far from passionate or, thanks to Parker’s solemn, dispassionate take on Leila, terribly deep.