Thursday 19 January 2012

Movie Review: The River Wild (1994)

A rapid run through the churning waters of a stressed family confronting evil, The River Wild is a rewarding adventure, made memorable by two impressive performances from Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon.

Gail (Streep) her husband Tom (David Strathairn) and their son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello) embark on a river rafting trip near the Canadian border. The relationship between Gail and Tom is strained almost to the breaking point thanks to his obsession with work and neglect of the family. Gail used to be a river guide and is an experienced river rafter, a fact that intrigues the apparently likable Wade (Bacon), also heading out onto the river with his buddy Terry (John C. Reilly) in another raft.

With Roarke angry at his dad, Wade fills the vacuum and quickly befriends the boy. But as the two rafts make their way downriver, Wade and Terry start to spend too much time with Gail's family at every stop, and both Gail and Tom sense that something is wrong. Sure enough, Wade and Terry are revealed to be criminals on the run, having committed a botched robbery that included the killing of a security guard. Using the threat of a loaded gun, Wade holds the family hostage and demands that Gail navigate them down river, through a highly treacherous section of white water called The Gauntlet.

Wade is one of Kevin Bacon's finest roles. The outward charm hiding heartless cruelty allows Bacon to play to his strengths. Roarke's immediate attraction and subsequent hero worship of Wade, as compared to his stodgy Dad, is compellingly delivered, and adds yet another life lesson to the already rich classroom that the river provides. And when Wade finally removes his nice-guy mask and reveals his true colours, Bacon switches from dangerously friendly to chillingly evil without losing his engaging personality, which makes Wade all the more depraved.

Meryl Streep did most of her own stunts in one her most physically demanding roles. But Gail's arduous journey cannot hide another terrific acting performance from Streep as Gail fights an unfair battle on four fronts: a marital battle with a husband who has checked out; a battle against falling for the charms of Wade, who initially seems to represent all that Tom does not; a battle to save her family from the raging river; and finally a battle against pure criminal evil. When she finally grasps what she is up against, Streep brings out of Gail the steely determination of a woman under mortal threat, doing what is necessary to survive.

David Strathairn as Tom suffers in comparison, primarily because his character's development is the least convincing. From a disconnected husband, uncaring father and boring office worker to a heroic outdoorsman with incredible agility and stamina, Tom's journey does not ring true, despite Strathairn's best efforts. Providing better support is John C. Reilly as Terry, Wade's sidekick and relatively dim servile follower.

Director Curtis Hanson puts the breathtaking scenery to excellent use, and combines the talent of his cast with nature's stunning beauty and power to great effect. Filmed on the Kootenai and Flathead Rivers in Montana and the Rogue River in Oregon, The River Wild may be Hollywood's ultimate salute to rafting, the water growing ever more turbulent as the dangers increase around Gail. But navigating the river is also her strength and advantage over Wade, and as the water gets more ferocious, Gail is riding into her element. The river may be wild, but for Gail the greater challenge is to try and overcome a ruthless criminal and save her family.

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