The River Wild (1994)

reviewed by
Scott Renshaw

                               THE RIVER WILD
                       A film review by Scott Renshaw
                        Copyright 1994 Scott Renshaw

Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, David Strathairn, Joseph Mazzello, John C. Reilly. Screenplay: Denis O'Neil. Director: Curtis Hanson.

Meryl Streep has proved to be an actor impossible to pigeonhole. Early in her career, she became renowned for her roles in such serious fare as SOPHIE'S CHOICE and OUT OF AFRICA, but was also stereotyped as an "accent of the month" technician without an audience-friendly personality. Then, with films like POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE and DEATH BECOMES HER, she showed a completely new and extremely appealing gift for comedy. Now Streep has gotten serious again, but this time in the context of an action-suspense thriller. THE RIVER WILD gives Streep the chance to flex new muscles (literally and artistically), and while she continues to be one of the most talented actors alive, she is failed here by a script which is thoroughly by-the-numbers.

Streep plays Gail, a Boston woman in the midst of marital difficulties. When her workaholic husband Tom (David Strathairn) bails out on a river rafting trip for son Roarke's (Joseph Mazzello) birthday, Gail, Roarke and the family dog head for the high country anyway. Tom surprises her by joining them at the last minute, but tensions run high. They run even higher when they happen upon Wade (Kevin Bacon) and Terry (John C. Reilly), two inexperienced rafters who have lost their guide. Gail, a veteran of the river, offers to help them make it down, but it soon becomes clear that Wade and Terry plan to go farther than Gail wants to take them, and that she and her family have no choice but to go along.

There is something to be said simply for the opportunity to watch Meryl Streep perform. At times during THE RIVER WILD, her talent explodes through the film's surface like one of the Class V rapids Gail must navigate. In one phenomenal scene, Gail leans in close to Wade to explain in a vicious whisper that she simply isn't capable of navigating "The Gauntlet," a series of rapids which lies ahead. She manages to convey not only her anger at Wade for threatening her family, but a subtle seduction in the attempt to convince him and a genuine frustration that she isn't good enough to make this journey even if she wanted to. It was because of scenes like that that my attention never completely wandered as long as Streep was on the screen, and she is almost always on the screen.

The problem is that most of the elements surrounding her aren't one-tenth as interesting. Denis O'Neil's script goes exactly where you expect it to go exactly when you expect it to go there, a story any movie of the week could come up with. A scene between Streep and David Strathairn in which they discuss their marital problems brought up elements of Gail's personality which can be found nowhere in the script, leaving Streep to flesh out this "demanding" streak on her own. Strathairn is solid, but has little to do; Kevin Bacon has a lot to do, and does most of it poorly. He's too stupid and not crazy enough when he needs to be most threatening, and there's not all that much conflict involved when the only thing the villain has over the protagonists is a gun. Director Curtis Hanson directs in a workmanlike manner, trotting out such suspense film standbys as the old "pet leaps out to the accompaniment of a blast of music" trick. It frequently seems as though he sees the family conflict storyline as something in the way, something to be pushed through to get to the rafting sequences.

To be fair, those sequences are exciting. Cinematographer Robert Elswit's camera swoops and dives, and there is a genuine sense of danger. The location scenery is also magnificent, filmed on rivers in Oregon and Montana, and helps fill in many of the dead spots. But THE RIVER WILD is too often THE RIVER MILD, a mediocre melodrama gifted with the presence of one great actor.

     On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 rapids:  5.
Scott Renshaw
Stanford University
Office of the General Counsel

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