Movie Review: Sweet River
By Matthew Huntley
May 8, 2021
“Sweet River” is a strongly performed yet mostly mediocre horror-thriller that too often puts it upon the audience to fill in its narrative gaps and to speculate on the causes and effects of its open-ended plot developments, and not in a way we appreciate. The movie is more frustrating than satisfying, although what’s peculiar about this otherwise competent picture is it doesn’t seem to not make sense of its own story on purpose. Rather, it’s as if the filmmakers simply didn’t think to do so. If they were put on trial for turning in a half-baked product, we’d believe them if their plea was merely professional ignorance.
It’s a shame, too, because “Sweet River” is a movie we want to be on board with, thanks in large part to the cast and because certain aspects of the screenplay do seem promising. But the underlying problem is the movie is too indecisive about which direction it wants to take and therefore falls back on hackneyed devices and gimmicks as its tenuous plot threads just sort trail off and fizzle out. Director Justin McMillan ultimately fails to make the film’s disparate elements gel into anything sensible or fulfilling and, by the end, we’re not even sure he’s certain about what transpires, let alone what he wanted the movie to say or mean.
The title of this 2020 Australian production refers to the cane-field surrounded river that runs through the agrarian town of Billins, located in a quiet, rural section of Queensland. Billins’ inhabitants keep a curiously low-profile and go out of their way to avoid speaking about their town’s obviously dark history, which is understandable given they recently endured two tragedies that involved the death of children, the wounds of which are still fresh. One of these was caused by a school bus crashing into the river, resulting in all the kids drowning and leaving only the bus driver to survive. The other was the discovery of four children’s bodies on the property of local man who turned out to be a serial killer.
Years after these two dreadful events, Hanna (Lisa Kay), an Englishwoman recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, returns to Billins, where she believes her young son, who went missing in the cane fields but whose body was never found, was the serial killer’s fifth victim. Because the killer eventually took his own life, Hanna cannot question him directly, but amidst attaining sobriety, listening to self-help tapes, and routinely checking in with her sponsor, she takes it upon herself to search the area and conduct her own investigation, all while trying to stay on the wagon.
To the locals, including the disbelieving constable Wilkins (Rob Carlton), Hanna’s presence and snooping about are only going to stir up trouble and they encourage her to leave. Only a kindly, soft-spoken farmer named John (John Drake) and his wife Elenor (Genevieve Lemon), who suffered their own loss, are willing to lend Hanna any sympathy—they allow her to rent out their back cottage as she questions the townsfolk and gathers evidence.
So far I’ve only described the thriller side of the movie, which is driven by its typical “serial killer and missing persons” plot, but even before we learn about Hanna’s past and what has brought her to Billins, “Sweet River” has hinted it wants to function as a supernatural horror film. It opens with a mostly stock horror sequence during which another local farmer, who’s also a drunk, veers off the side of the road and into the river’s dense and overgrown cane fields. He stumbles out of his truck and hear strange noises in the distance. Suddenly, he’s attacked, although by who or what we don’t know, and the next day his body turns up face down in the river.
This perfunctory scene eventually ties in with Hanna’s own probing into Billins’ dirty laundry, because just as she starts to dig deeper into the town’s cursed past, she discovers she’s being stalked and terrorized by the ghosts of the aforementioned dead children. Apparently, the youngsters are stuck in some sort of limbo and their spirits, now manifested as rotting corpses, still inhabit the cane fields where their bodies perished, and ostensibly, they don’t like anyone going where they’re not supposed to, although we can only speculate this is the case (as I mentioned above, the movie leaves a lot up to us).
It’s also our best guess that the townspeople are aware of the dead children’s presence because they’ve gone out of their way to affix red lights to their cars and houses that evidently keeps the apparitions at bay. Is there something about Billins that makes all of this possible? Does the town exist on a different plane compared with the rest of the world? Do its members have some sort of extrasensory gift that allows them to see and even speak with the dead?
I might have been willing to overlook the movie’s irrational or non-existent explanations of its perplexing plot ideas had it been more imaginative with its horror qualities, but they’re nothing special. The pale look and mostly muted behavior of the dead children is uninspired and run-of-the-mill; the lighting, framing and editing of the would-be scary scenes are amateurish; and McMillan and his team employ just the standard assortment of loud crescendos, bumps in the night, mysterious rock patterns (I’m still not sure what these mean), and moderate gore that isn’t as shocking as much as it is ordinary.
All of these elements are meant to get a rise out of us, but unfortunately the movie isn’t scary or exciting, at least not as a horror film. “Sweet River” succeeds more as a dramatic thriller because, despite all the supernatural nonsense going on, the actors lend their characters weight, dimension and humanity. Hanna, Tom, Elenor, the regretful bus driver (Eddie Baroo, who also wrote the screenplay alongside Marc Furmie), and another grieving father (James Lipton) Hanna seeks out, are all tragic figures with whom we sympathize and find interesting. To their credit, the cast (and script) engages us with the characters’ troubled pasts.
If the movie had abandoned its horror side altogether and refocused itself as an earnest drama about loss, anguish and the struggle to let go, “Sweet River” might have amounted to something powerful yet subtle. Two scenes in particular show the storytellers were capable, including the final scene, during which a lot of emotion is expressed between two individuals even though their dialogue is limited.
Unfortunately, “Sweet River” tries to be two types of movies for the price of one and it’s unable to reconcile them so the overall experience has meaning. The result is a movie that sometimes gains but mostly loses steam as its plot stumbles and unfolds, ultimately leaving us in a state of disappointment and confusion. In fact, after I watched the movie, I did something I don’t often have to do, which is take to the internet to make sure I wasn’t alone in my bewilderment, and in this case it was confirming who lived, who died, and why certain things in the movie’s world are the way they are. When I couldn’t find substantial answers, I had to make it a point to simply walk away and accept “Sweet River” was one that got away and no longer worth thinking about. If the movie taught me anything, it was to heed the voice that tells you when to move on and let go.