James Quinn's "The River" A Potent Fantasy Short Film About A Boy On A Ghost Ship

"THE RIVER" (2015)
Genre: Fantasy
Length- 11:14
Company:  N/A

Mom (Emmy Happisburgh) and Dad (Andrew Snowball) are wrapped up in the business of trying to get through each day after their musical older son dies, and little Andy (Jack Hutchinson) is left with little to do but explore the woods near his home.  He discovers a beautiful lake, and a derelict ship floating inside -- and swears he can hear someone playing trumpet onboard.

With a curious mind and a gnawing sense of loss growing inside of him, he makes it his personal mission to discover who's making the music coming from the ghost ship.


"The River" is a touching contemporary fantasy coming to us from writer/director James Quinn.  It's billed as something on par with Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, and I think that addressing that comparison is as good a place to begin my review as any.

At first glance, the two films might seem extremely different.  While Pan's Labyrinth brings a young girl to bear on the ugliness of a post-Civil War Spain in the 1940's, "The River" is a very insular film, never addressing the world beyond the scope of a young boy named Andy.  There are no fancy monsters and gorgeous CGI landscapes in "The River".

What the films share however is thematic common ground . . .


In "The River", as stated, we never look beyond the family unit.  It's the strongest form of government on display, but from the first few minutes we learn that one member, the eldest son, has recently died, and ever since, the familial bond has begun to atrophy.

Mom and Dad are on different wavelengths, and none of them are communicating all that well to Andy, and nobody is stepping up to resolidify their "government", so to speak, so it falls to Andy to, essentially, rise up and attempt to make the changes necessary to heal the family unit before it dies completely.

The result is an admittedly brief but no less epic journey worthy of Joseph Campbell's monomyth, and it works so well because it's utilizing timeless concepts: Andy crosses a RIVER to retrieve a loved one from beyond the dead (River Styx, anyone?)

And on that note, the trumpeter could either be Andy's brother or the legendary Ferryman, Death himself.

Pretty deep stuff for a short film, and I for one appreciate thoughtful films that give you something to think about long after you've finished your first viewing.  Or second.


"The River" is a slow paced but emotionally affecting short film that deals with themes of mourning and the afterlife with a pinch of fantasy while remaining rooted in the real world.  Using timeless concepts and gorgeous exterior shots (almost the entire film takes place outside), Quinn sucks you in and makes you feel for Andy and his family, all of whom by the way are splendid actors.

My only real complaint is that so much time is spent up front on atmosphere and mood that when important plot points are introduced (like the boat and trumpet, for instance) they seem to be glossed over in a matter of seconds -- total blink or you miss it moments.


Writing: 3 / 5.  Very slow paced but suitably atmospheric and full of thematic depth, "The River" provides a solid emotional punch.  The ambiguous ending was a bit too ambiguous for my taste, and some of the plot points felt too hinted at, not to mention rushed, which forced me to watch it a second time before I fully understood what was going on.  
Directing: 4 / 5.  Beautiful imagery galore here, from the exteriors (which were just incredible) to even the interiors -- particularly the elder son's bedroom.  Quinn and Director of Photography Joe Douglas have an amazing knack for capturing just the right way to nail a shot.  And the shots of the ghost ship at night -- creepy!
Editing: 4 / 5.  Beautiful color correction from Oisin O'Driscoll and Dan Butler.  Top notch editing courtesy of Riccardo Servini, who serves up a slowburn cut that feels right.  I think certain areas of the film could definitely have been fleshed out more -- considering how much atmosphere we have, if we could have gotten to know the dead boy for instance, it would not have hurt this film to have been filled out to around 15 minutes.
Sound/Music: 3 / 5.  Good soundtrack from Thom Robson and session trumpeter Sam Ewens.  It's not every day I hear a short film with a trumpet on the soundtrack.  The only problem with the sound design from Oliver Whillock was that I couldn't tell whether the trumpet I heard was part of the score, or the trumpet I was supposed to be identifying as coming from the boat.
Acting: 4 / 5.  Hutchinson is a fine young actor and I'm excited to see where he goes from here.  Happisburgh and Snowball are solid thespians as well and pull off emotional performances that are 100% credible.

Final Grade: 3.6 / 5. 

Check out the trailer for "The River" at James Quinn's Vimeo page and follow the creators on Facebook!

Thanks for reading! I'm a screenwriter and script consultant. Most recently, I've worked with LMC Productions and Mad Antz Films in Australia. I helped mold Goodybag Productions' award winning screenplay "The Teacher" and Michael Maguire's feature length script "The Wolfpack", which is still in development.

Check out my blog and let's get in touch!