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Wednesday, March 6, 2002

Jump right in, the water's murky

Suspicious River

Rating: * * * 1/2
Japanese title: Shizumi Yuku Onna
Director: Lynne Stopkewich
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Is it just me or have you noticed how modern love has become more about going through the motions until one gets bored, then starting the process all over again? But there are worse fates. "Suspicious River," from Canadian director Lynn Stopkewich, explores the stark emptiness of people who don't even bother going through the motions and, instead, hurl themselves into a dark and thorny place. It brings them pain and tears, but they still forge on, convinced that the high they get from skirting the dangers is sure to be better than the humdrum, grocery-shopping existence on the other side. Come back, you want to tell them, it's not that bad. At least it's safe over here! But they throw a contemptuous smile, wave and disappear.

News photo
Molly Parker in "Suspicious River"

This is Stopkewich's second film, and once again, she experiments with characters who wander, bleeding and tired, in that territory. Her debut, "Kissed," was about a female necrophile who works in a funeral parlor and can only derive sexual satisfaction after-hours, from dead men stored in drawers. This time, Stopkewich sets the scene in a crummy motel in the no-hope town of Suspicious River. The murky river that flows just outside the parking lot and the swans that come to feed on the banks are about the only things to see there.

Leila (stunningly played by Molly Parker) works at the motel's reception desk by day and goes home to her quiet, undemanding husband Rick (Joel Bissonnette) by night. The tomb of marital security has driven her to seek private diversions, and at the motel, Leila charges $60 for quick sex to any guest who expresses interest. Word gets around, resulting in quite a parade of overweight businessmen seeking her favors.

Then Gary (Callum Keith Rennie) comes along. Rugged, lean and handsome, he stands out. Still, Leila goes to his room thinking that this session will be like all the others. It isn't. Without warning he slaps her and practically rapes her. And then he apologizes. Leila backs off and brushes him off. That gets Gary hooked. He showers her with declarations of love and begs her to run away. Reluctant to get involved at first, Leila gradually gives in to his passion. Once he gets her away from Suspicious River, however, Gary shows his true colors and Leila retreats back into her shell, clinging to her maxim that "It's impossible to hurt someone who doesn't feel it."

It's clear that director Stopkewich is fascinated by this woman who seems incapable of sustaining emotions, who hardly ever changes her expression and remains tranquil at all times. It's a mystery why she needs to sell herself, and, most likely, Leila herself doesn't know the reason. In spite of this or because of it, she takes prostitution to a state of Zen -- donning a mantle of dignified silence that envelops her entire body, impossible to shatter no matter how degrading the acts her clients force on her. Indeed, the whole work is charged with an Asian (in the cinematic sense) feel: the simple and streamlined set design; perpetual cloudy or rainy weather; the rocky riverbank; origami cranes hanging from the ceiling. Stopkewich focuses on Leila's aura for the first half of the film, then reveals her mysterious past during the second. As it is, Leila is so much more compelling than her reasons for being so.

Gary is also worth studying. In this day and age, his method of seduction is anachronistic: He doesn't admire Leila for her mind, he doesn't play games, he doesn't offer to take her out to dinner with a slew of clever wisecracks. No, it's "I love you, baby," "You turn me on, baby" and, the clincher, "You're a goddess, baby" -- over and over. He too finds Leila's armor of not-being-there alluring and seeks to catch her ever-wandering gaze, to pin her scattered attention. But once she comes out of her isolation to make the connection, the flame burns out. She turns into just another conquest, which for Gary is like getting the go signal to manipulate and exploit the hell out of her.

It's probably a healthy reaction to just write off this scenario (Malboro Man turns abusive on girlfriend who doesn't fight back) as a thing of the past. On the other hand, "Suspicious River" may open doors to visions you'd rather not see, but will transfix you anyway. In any case, it's a strangely quiet but disquieting work that carefully constructs its own brand of queasy eroticism. As Gary aptly puts it: "There's nothing wrong with liking these things, baby."

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