The River Wild (1994 USA)

A family-friendly feminist reboot of Deliverance. Without the sodomy. Damn…I knew something was missing. Maybe director Curtis Hanson suggested that Meryl Streep give up her booty, Ned Beatty–style. Was she willing to take one for the team? Obviously not. Anyway, from the viewpoint of 2017 The River Wild screams 1994. Here’s an action film with no CGI, with the obligatory Spielbergian “marital problems”, the typical “90s son”, typical “architect father” and yet another “Jerry Goldsmith score.” The River Wild proudly rode a then-new trend: the extreme sports/wilderness action film (Cliffhanger and The Edge).

Gail (Meryl Streep) is a teacher for the deaf who takes her family on a white water rafting trip for her son’s birthday. Not only a holiday, but its also an opportunity to help smooth over relations between her husband Tom (David Strathairn) and her son Roarke (the irritatingly precocious Joseph Mazzello). Tom’s a workaholic who has just about destroyed any chance of having a relationship with his son (Yes, its so predictable its actually painful). This family is on the brink of flying apart. What they need is a good crisis to bring them back together. And the screenplay delivers that. While heading downriver, Gail and family come across two strangers, Wade and Terry (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly). Claiming they have lost their guide, the two slightly shifty men need Gail’s help to get down the river.

Of course naturally these two men are not what they seem. And it isn’t long before the family’s travelling companions take them all hostage. Because they’re really a couple of bank robbers, and they need Gail to get them through the Gauntlet: a treacherous set of rapids, the only sure way to escape from the law. As is usually the case with any of Curtis Hanson’s films, his direction is excellent. And he keeps the plot moving so quickly that you hardly have time to notice any glaringly obvious plot holes. But they are there. The Gauntlet is supposed to be the only way to get down the river. But much later in the film, Tom manages to escape, and he gets around the Gauntlet on foot. Why can’t the family do the same? Because it would be a pretty limp ending. But any shortcomings is more than made up for in the cast performances.

The River Wild is not exactly a stretch for an actress of Meryl Streep’s talents. She could do this kind of part in her sleep, and she deserves some credit for not coasting her way through the role. She allows a wonderful range of emotions to play out over her beautifully expressive face. Which is what makes her such an effortlessly engaging screen presence. And she’s up to the strenuous scenes too. She could give Sigourney Weaver a run for her money. The one other actor in the film that vies with Streep for impressive screen time is Kevin Bacon as the sleazy Wade. And its quite an interesting role. Instead of the gun-toting lunatic that would have been so much easier to play, Wade becomes almost like a perverse sort of father figure. Roarke doesn’t get along with his dad, but gets along great with Wade. Wade enjoys spending time with Roarke. He gives him plenty of attention. As well as lavishing some on Gail too.

That’s something that doesn’t escape Tom’s notice. Its quite a nicely modulated performance on Bacon’s part. He’s always been an actor overdue worthwhile recognition. I’m not saying his work here is Oscar worthy. But he delivers the goods. Alternately sinister and light. Like when he gets along with the wife and kids. And suddenly spooky like spying on Gail while she’s bathing. The other performances are merely adequate. Tom gets to play a bit of an action hero. Climbing embankments. Swimming in the river. Amusingly he never loses his glasses. Even when he’s getting knocked around. Terry is only Wade’s sidekick, not much else. And Roarke is just the obnoxious brat who gets them into trouble. The film’s ultimate set-piece is the Gauntlet. And its a thrilling 10 minutes. Crashing waves. Dizzying camera angles. All shot with a real immediacy. And the sight of giant rocks coming right at you is terrifying. I’m not sure where those scenes were really filmed but special commendation should go to the filmmakers, actors and stunt doubles for putting themselves at such great risk. The River Wild is not Curtis Hanson’s finest hour. That honour goes to LA Confidential.

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