The American Side is an ambitious thriller that seems like it takes place in the past. The film concerns Charlie Paczynski (Greg Stuhr), a private investigator who becomes entangled in a mysterious suicide, government conspiracies, and the inventions of Nikola Tesla. Paczynski’s car and outfits suggest the 1970s, there’s a distinct lack of cellphones, and, as Tesla becomes more central, the story takes on a slight element of the uncanny that could have been pushed further.
Director Jenna Ricker doesn’t rely on special effects and ultra-fast-paced editing, instead creating a compelling atmosphere through an unconventional setting: The film takes place in Buffalo and the most memorable scenes involve Niagara Falls. From the dramatic sway of the Falls, Ricker creates a foreboding environment, with a late long shot of Paczynski being chased — a small figure practically enveloped by deep, glinting waters — standing out as particularly well composed.
The Tesla material feels somewhat undercooked — melding the almost sci-fi elements of Tesla’s legacy with the classic detective narrative is no easy task. The American Side is more successful in creating the shadowy atmosphere in which its somewhat convoluted narrative unfolds. The supporting performances are worth noting: Janeane Garofalo plays a brusque government agent (who could have benefited from more screen time) and Robert Forster makes a welcome appearance as a charismatic, old-school source of information for Paczynski.
While The American Side may not quite achieve the classic thriller tone to which it aspires, it does create an enjoyably hard-boiled world.
The American Side
Directed by Jenna Ricker
Opens April 29, IFC Center