Written and directed by Grant Scicluna

99 minutes, rated MA 15+

The conventional advice to young film-makers – don’t attempt too much, keep it simple, write about what you know – often results in conventional films. No-one told Grant Scicluna, who takes too many risks for his own good in his dark and confronting first feature. I’m guessing many people told him it was an uncommercial idea – and it is. I’m also guessing he thought he may not get another chance, so he went for it.  He has made something profound and moving in the process.

Scicluna grew up in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where he often heard the words ’be careful’ in relation to the Colo River. Downriver was shot in Melbourne, using the Yarra, but it does not matter where the river. It’s just important that it is beautiful and scary, both beckoning and threatening.

This preoccupation with a dangerous landscapes is everywhere in Australian film-making. Ray Lawrence went up the river in Jindabyne ten years ago, in a brutal story about men who went fishing, even after they found a body in the river. Grant Scicluna’s story is a kind of spiritual cousin but an inversion, because no-one can find the body.

What kind of risks do I mean? Starting your film with a scene that identifies your protagonist as a killer is the first. James (Reef Ireland) sits in a juvenile prison. A case-worker brings a woman (Alicia Gardiner) who wants answers he cannot give: where is my son’s body? What did you do with him? A flashback shows us that James, aged about ten, killed a child by the river. He was not alone, but only he went to prison. Now paroled, James returns to his trailer park home near the river, hoping to find answers. Kerry Fox, as his mother Paige, doesn’t want him in her new house; nor does his estranged father. She wants to help him, but she’s afraid of him.

James is gay. Most of the young men in the story are gay: Anthony (Tom Green) who may have been the other boy present at the murder, and Damien (Charles Grounds), literally the boy next door in the trailer park. The homoerotic gazes here are never the point of the story, but they are frequent enough to seem like a point is being made: gay is who they are, not what they do. The sexuality is important to the atmosphere and the mechanics of what happens, but it doesn’t explain the crime. That’s another risk: some might argue there’s enough hate crime already, without stories of young gay child killers in our midst.

Scicluna navigates these difficult waters with care. It’s clear here that character is action, regardless of sexuality.  And no-one still expects black cinema, for example, to be concerned only with positive role models.

That kind of nuanced viewpoint is unusual, but it’s a side issue. The real achievement here is in control of mood and suspense, in support of characterisation. The film has a palpable tension throughout, driven by the remarkable performances of these three young men. Some veteran actors – Robert Taylor as Paige’s lover, the seldom seen Helen Morse as a kind of hermit lady – add strength to what is, after all, a hard story. Movies about child killers, even great ones like Mystic River,  are always challenging. 

There are gaps and lapses in Downriver’s story, but it hardly matters. When you’re gripped by a sense of fear and expectation, who can worry about whether an event stretches credibility?  It’s not about perfection. Downriver takes us somewhere fresh, and that’s a thrill. So few movies ever get close.

Scicluna describes it as a detective story where the detective is the killer – glib but true. It’s a story about redemption, manipulation and the darkness at the end of the street. Comparisons with David Michod’s Animal Kingdom and Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown are appropriate. These are harsh, unblinking, accusatory movies. Do we have a new Australian Gothic film movement, or what?