Two sons of a stern minister - one reserved, one rebellious - grow up in rural 1920s Montana while devoted to fly fishing.Two sons of a stern minister - one reserved, one rebellious - grow up in rural 1920s Montana while devoted to fly fishing.Two sons of a stern minister - one reserved, one rebellious - grow up in rural 1920s Montana while devoted to fly fishing.
Pay attention to the themes that never go away
Have you seen The Graduate? It was hailed as the movie of its generation. But A River Runs Through It is the story about all generations. Long before Dustin Hoffman's character got all wrapped up in the traps of modern suburbia, Norman Maclean and his brother Paul were facing the same crushing pressures of growing up as they tried to find their place in the world. But how could a place like post WW1 Montana be a showcase for the American family, at a time when the Wild West still was not completely gone? Just what has Maclean tapped into that strikes so deeply at who we all are and what we have to go through to find ourselves? As the movie opens, Norman is an old man, flyfishing beside a rushing river, trying to understand the course his own life has taken. The movie is literally a journey up through his own stream of consciousness, against time's current and back to when he was a boy. He and his younger brother Paul were the sons of a Presbyterian minister and devoted mother. The parents fit snugly into their roles. Mom takes care of house and home. Dad does the work of the Lord. The boys ponder what they will be when they grow up. Norm has it narrowed down to a boxer or a minister like his dad. Given the choice, little Paul would be the boxer, since he's told his first choice of pro flyfisherman doesn't even exist. The boys grow up and get into trouble with their pranks, fight to see who is tougher and do the things brothers do, all the while attending church and taking part in all other spiritual matters like flyfishing. They are at similar points in their lives before college. But when Norm returns from his six years at Dartmouth, things are very different. Paul is at the top of his game. Master flyfisherman. Grad of a nearby college and newspaper reporter who knows every cop on the beat and every judge on the bench. Norman is stunningly well educated for his day but has little idea what to do with his life, even as his father grills him about what he intends to do. You're left feeling that at least to Pops, God will call you to your life's work. But you have to stay open and ready to receive it -- all your life. Father has always taken his boys to reflect by the side of the river and contemplate God's eternal words. "Listen," their father urges. It's both Zen and Quakerly. Pretty radical for a stoic clergyman. But with all the beauty and contemplation, and even though the Macleans are truly a God-fearing, scripture-heeding household, how is it that Rev. Maclean's family is unraveling? Paul is true perfection as he fishes the river, but he's feeling the pull of gambling and boozing, while his family doesn't know how to keep him from winding up where he seems to be headed. Mom, Dad and Brother all seem to have the same quiet desperation of not knowing what they should be doing and why they can't seem to help. Pauly just waves it all off with a grin and his irresistible charm. But the junior brother is losing his grip. Norman starts getting his life on track, finding love and career, but Paul continues to slide. The family that loves him watches helplessly. Mother, Father, Brother flounder in their own ways trying to help, but none very effectively. How can a family that loves each other so much be so ill-equipped to handle this? How can someone be so artful and full of grace when out in God's nature, yet be somehow unfit or unwilling to fit into the constructs of society that God's peoples have made for themselves? These are all questions Norman will ponder his entire life. The eternal words beneath the smooth stones of the river forever haunt him, yet keep their secrets. The movie is beautiful to watch. This is certainly God's country, and filming it won an Oscar. Director Robert Redford plays with the story from the book and teases the narration a bit to follow the emotional pattern he's presenting, and it works well. But do go back and read the book, too. You'll see Norman made connections with his old man even deeper than the movie can suggest -- and you'll see the places where the storyteller's very words gurgle and sing right off the page with an exuberance of a river running through it, leading into the unknown.
- Feb 10, 2006
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