Here’s the setup: Gail “White Water” Hartman (Meryl Streep (Mamma Mia!)) is a former river rafting guide who takes her son, Roarke (Joseph Mazzello (Jurassic Park)), on a trip down her old river stomping grounds as a birthday present. Her husband, Tom (David Strathairn (The Bourne Legacy)), cancels at first but then eventually comes along to try to salvage their strained marriage. He hopes to reconnect with Roarke as well who hates his guts for working all the time. Along the way they meet up with Wade (Kevin Bacon (Hollow Man)) and Terry (John C. Reilly (Gangs of New York)) who seem a bit creepy. Maybe it’s because they just did a robbery and are on their escape route. That could have something to do with it. Anyway, they kidnap Gail and her family and force them to traverse the treacherous waters so they can make their getaway.
This film reminds me of two things. First is that it’s Hitchcock-like in not only the brilliantly simple and tight story idea but also the excellent and precise building of tension. You just know so much shit is gonna go down and that suspense is killer. Second is this is a little like Deliverance. Ok, it doesn’t get viciously violating like that or make you question what the hell is real anymore by the end but it’s you know, a fun trip down a river that goes horribly wrong. And they both involve run-ins with a pair of awful fucking people who put the protagonists in a dire situation. By the way if you haven’t checked out Deliverance yet you really should.
Now Streep is renowned for her acting ability and I’ve seen her pull off some damn good performances (Kramer vs. Kramer, Death Becomes Her) but for whatever reason she kinda looks like she’s not so into it here. Nor sure what it is but the good news is she has enough natural charm to carry her through anyway. Although when Gail turns into her alter ego, White Water, Streep turns it on more ‘cause she gets to kick ass on the rapids and talk tough to the villains. Gail gets scared but White Water’s fearless.
I like that David Strathairn was cast as the unavailable father who when backed into a corner turns into a Pitbull that does whatever the fuck he needs to do to save his family. He’s such an average guy in every way, looks, physique, personality, which makes this casting decision and performance all the more enjoyable. I mean Tom has to wrestle and punch the bad guys a few times throughout and Strathairn totally pulls it off. I guess it helps a lot that neither Bacon nor Reilly are huge muscular guys. They’re not in any better shape than Strathairn so it feels like the playing field is even, well if we’re talking no gun and only mano a mano that is.
So Tom turns into a cool character despite being kind of annoying for the first third. You learn he can’t keep promises or set aside some family time because he’s so absorbed by his job. He doesn’t fly out with everyone to the northwest for the rafting trip so you think he’s blown it once again. But then he shows up at the last minute right before they cast off to show he cares. The only issue is he also brings along his briefcase and does do some work while on the river. It seems weird to me that this guy clearly recognizes he needs to cool it with his job and join his family on this trip to save his marriage, but then he continues to work and alienate people anyway. Either he gets it or he doesn’t. This in between thing is bullshit.
For my money though the best one to watch is Bacon. Man does he thrive in an asshole role and this is no exception (that’s strange because he seems like such a down to earth cool guy in real life). Wade acts fishy from the start but you can’t put your finger on why exactly and that’s the mark of a great performance. However the signs get stronger as the film progresses like he shows Roarke his gun in secret and peeps on Gail skinny dipping. It’s when he finally reveals his true intentions of forcing Gail to run The Gauntlet, an infamously impossible series of rapids that Gail has only run and survived once before, that you truly begin to see the extent of Wade’s craziness. I mean it’s astounding that up until the very end we’re still discovering how much of a psycho this guy actually is. He’ll kill anyone with absolutely no qualms and he says sinister shit like “Now I’m gonna try to [shoot] you in the spine right between the shoulder blades, you ready?” He’s kinda fucking insane and the subtle build up to that realization is handled great.
John C. Reilly meanwhile is mostly relegated to the dumb sidekick role. But there’s an innocence to Terry which gives him some nice dimension. He’s not heartless like Wade and it’s unclear if he has or could even muster up the strength to kill someone. And he does deliver maybe the only funny line in the movie (probably unintentionally though). You see Gail, Roarke and Tom know sign language because Gail’s father is deaf so they use that skill to their advantage in this shitty situation. At one point when Gail is signing to Roarke Terry yells out “Wade! They’re talkin’ or whatever!”
Moving on, I love the way this was shot with tons of gorgeous wide open landscape filling your screen. Mountains, rivers, rapids, cliffs, simply beautiful. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler, Return of the Living Dead II) did an awesome job surrounding you in the splendor but also isolation of the northwest.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score is fairly generic but pretty dramatically sweeping at the same time. I guess that’s why he’s done a million fucking film scores over the years (Chinatown, Alien, Gremlins, Basic Instinct, Air Force One). He rides that big Hollywood film music line like almost no one else. Apparently he was called in at the last minute to re-do the music because the suits didn’t like what Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ghost) did. Interestingly you can find Jarre’s original score if you poke around for a sec. Don’t get what was wrong with it myself. Goldsmith’s score actually sounds more dated, very early to mid-90’s with those odd air puffed snare hits.
Director Curtis Hanson had sort of a peculiar career over the years if you look back (he just died in 2016). He started in low budget horror then did the teensploitation movie Losin’ It starring Tom Cruise, and then suddenly became a respected Hollywood director with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But most people will know him for the overrated L.A. Confidential and the Eminem inspired, Eminem starring picture 8 Mile. He didn’t have a noticeable style but hey, he sure knew how to get some excitement on the screen. The River Wild has got to be my favorite of his that I’ve seen. As a quick mention though, Hanson’s homoerotic thriller Bad Influence is substantially weird with Rob Lowe (St. Elmo’s Fire) being the immoral encouragement over James Spader (Crash (1996)). It shouldn’t’ be missed. (Wow, that’s two recommendations and this thing ain’t over yet)
The River Wild isn’t a masterpiece or anything but I love its spirit and it does the modest high tension, high stakes plot justice. I really couldn’t ask for more out of this nice little effective concept. It’s hard to find a good thriller and this is certainly worthy of your time. I think you’ll like it.
(Check out this badass fucking trailer)
(Check out this badass fucking trailer)