The River Wild – Beautiful Scenery and the Wrong Story?

Written by Denis O’Neill
Directed by Curtis Hanson

Although much of the plot of The River Wild is inherently predictable, there are enough twists that coupled with some terrific performances make this film worth viewing. I had caught part of this movie recently on cable, and wondered why I hadn’t watched it in some time, so when I came across it in a discount bin, I picked it up.

Meryl Streep is Gail, a woman living in Boston who’s marriage is not so good. Her husband is a workaholic who never seems to have time for his family. When she plans a trip to visit her parents in rural Montana, she confesses to her mother that she thinks her marriage is over. She worked as a guide on the local river before moving away, and wants to take her son, Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), down the river.

Her husband Tom (David Strathairn) surprises her by showing up at the last minute, having brought his architectural work with him. The friction in the family is apparent, especially between Roarke and his father.

Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly are Wade and Terry, two rafters with whom Gail struck up a friendship before Tom arrived, and whom they encounter further down the river when their guide has apparently deserted them.

This is where the tale takes a sinister tone, as there is more to Wade and Terry than they first appear. First Tom, then Gail are equally unnerved by Wade’s behavior.

The pacing of the movie is good. There is a great build-up from the beginning and the suspense really takes off once it’s revealed who Wade and Terry really are. There’s plenty of foreshadowing, so the revelation really doesn’t come as a surprise.

Kevin Bacon’s performance here is stunning. I could see the beginnings of the character he portrays in Hollow Man here (a film I have not yet been able to bring myself to review). He’s not quite off the deep end as a cold, calculating criminal. It’s obvious from their first encounter that Wade had designs on Gail, and I have to wonder how the story would have gone had Tom not shown up. In some ways that might have been a more interesting story.

Streep’s performance seemed to be hit or miss. At times she was perfect. She was so believable in the early scenes, especially with Bacon, when she’s flirting with Wade in a blatant attempt to drive a point home to her husband. When she introduces him to Wade as “Roarke’s father,” it’s a zinger delivered so nonchalantly by Streep that it hit’s the mark perfectly. The scene between her and Bacon where she challenges him on just how tough he really is, is another spot where she hit’s the mark. However, her performances whenever she is supposed to be in peril just don’t seem to show enough fright or concern. When she’s facing “The Gauntlet” that “dreaded part of the river down which no one should go”, she’s entirely too giddy about it. Sure, she’s been down it before, but this is something that is supposed to have paralyzed and killed people – why would she be happy to go down it? Even if she believes her hope of rescue lies at the end of it, she has to make it through this part first, along with the other people in her boat. She’s not believable as “an action hero”.

Strathairn is, well, Strathairn. I have yet to see him in a movie where he fails to deliver. The performance he delivers as a husband who’s trying to fix what may be broken in his family’s life is really good. He plays off of Streep’s performance well in that he seems like he’s been living in his wife’s shadow while both have regarded much of their marriage as a competition with her coming out on top. I thought he seemed tired of the competition, and that was probably more of the reason for his initial dodging the vacation than anything else. Later on, when he begins to assert himself and gain some confidence to take decisive action, he transforms the character not too far from whom we initially met. I had the feeling this was the man who he had been wanting to be all those years and was never given the opportunity.

There are plotholes aplenty, such as how could a gun which had been repeatedly dropped in the water still fire? How could Tom manage to walk along the river faster than they could raft? And if he could walk along the cliffs surrounding the river to bypass “The Gauntlet”, why couldn’t that just be suggested to the bad guys in the first place? Why was Benjamin Bratt’s character as a ranger in the film at all? Shouldn’t Strathairn have been a little more beat up after being shot at, falling (twice) from a cliff, and getting into a fistfight…. You get the picture.

Besides Bacon’s performance, the other saving grace of this film is the dazzling scenery. The cinematography is beautiful, whether it’s pulling back to show us the beautiful scenery surrounding the downstream journey, or the close-up shots of the riding of the rapids in the river. I just wanted to hop on out there with them, pitch a tent, and drink in the atmosphere.

I still think a better story might have been what would have happened if Tom had never shown up and Gail and Roarke were alone in the wilderness with Wade and Terry, but that’s a tale that won’t be told.

Published by Patti Aliventi

Once upon a time there was this website called Epinions. I wrote thousands of reviews there. I love books, movies, and television; mostly science fiction. I'm a gun-totin', meat-eatin' liberal with libertarian leanings who will voice my opinion.

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