John Lake (Rossif Sutherland) is an American doctor working for an NGO in southern Laos. One night, after an evening of heavy drinking, John comes across an Australian man sexually assaulting a local woman. John intervenes and, in the scuffle, ends up killing him. Despite it being an act of self-defence, John fears the consequences if caught by the authorities, so he decides to go on the run, hoping to reach the American Embassy.
There is a great deal of moral ambiguity at play in River, the debut feature from director Jamie M. Dagg. The problems for John begin when he decides to intervene during the sexual assault. However, he only makes matters worse by entering into a fight with the perpetrator and killing him. Since the attacker was the son of an Australian senator, things would have likely gotten even worse for John if caught, so he makes a run for it.
It’s difficult deciding whether John deserves sympathy for his actions. While he was doing the right thing and was in the wrong place at the wrong time, he also flees the scene of the crime. This leads to many questions being asked over the course of John’s plight. That said, he is also placed at the mercy of a country that would rather presume John’s guilt and ask questions later, complete with the irony of John being charged for the crime he was trying to prevent. Even when John goes to the American Embassy for help, he finds that they are unable or unwilling to do anything about his predicament.
While River is not a perfect film, it does end up being an interesting character study about how this man reacts to having the odds stacked up against him. The situation that John finds himself in ends up revealing what kind of person he actually is. Is it wrong that John decided to go on the run or is it merely part of the man that he is? That is the moral question that is at the centre of River, which might not have that easy an answer. While it is true that John was in the wrong place at the wrong time, he might ultimately just be the victim of human instinct.