The River Wild (1994)

11 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The River Wild” is predictable. I’ll admit that. You can guess more-or-less where the film’s story is going to go. But that doesn’t make it a bad movie. Actually, I think it’s a terrific action-thriller. It has top-notch acting; it features a fully-realized main character played with more than the right amount of gusto by Meryl Streep than it deserves; it’s shot wonderfully in the great outdoors, the Salmon River in Idaho; and it has its share of tense moments. I enjoyed watching “The River Wild.”

So what do I mean by predictable? Well, here’s the setup:

Meryl Streep plays Gail, a former river guide and rafting expert who decides to take her son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello) on a whitewater rafting journey for his birthday. Her husband Tom (David Strathairn) is a workaholic architect who is reluctant to go on this trip. But he shows up at the last minute, though he is more concerned with getting work done than enjoying the outdoor life and spending time with his family. Gail knows the territory well, and even once braved the challenge known as the Gauntlet, which is said to be the most dangerous set of rapids. (She tells her family that one person was killed and another was paralyzed for life.) Also on the river are Wade (Kevin Bacon) and Terry (John C. Reilly), who are not so experienced in this sort of thing and have lost their guide. They meet Gail and family who decide to let them come along and join them. Roarke is able to befriend them because Wade seems like a nice guy. But the further they go downstream, the more distrust Gail and Tom feel towards Wade and Terry. And things get more ominous when Wade shows Roarke a loaded gun, and Tom plans to confront Wade…

So from reading that setup, you might have already guessed where this is going. Wade and Terry are on the run; they know that Gail knows the river, so she can help them escape; they make their true presence known, as they’re midway through; Gail, Tom, and Roarke are held hostage; and the way Wade and Terry want to go is through the Gauntlet. I was almost about to give a “SPOILER ALERT” for this review, but what’s the point?

The plot is thin and predictable as they come.

But there’s more than enough to make up for that. First and foremost is the fine acting by the cast. They aren’t caricatures or one-note figures thrown in for marketable reasons; they’re well-developed characters played by great actors. Meryl Streep is wonderful as to be expected, and is really the backbone of this movie. She’s physically fit, which is something you rarely see in her other roles, and she plays the character as smart and as tough as we would like to see in this role. Streep captures Gail’s energy and terror perfectly. She has the makings of a strong female action hero.

Kevin Bacon is well-cast as the ruthless Wade, delivering an effective mix of menace and charm. David Strathairn is convincing as an uptight workaholic suddenly pushed to his limits. John C. Reilly is good as Wade’s sidekick whose hesitance, especially when the group is shooting the rapids, makes for some comedic moments.

“The River Wild” also has top-notch production values important to the film’s success. The cinematography is outstanding and the suitable music score is effective assistance. The climax of the film, in which the group inevitably race down the aforementioned dangerous Gauntlet, is exhilarating. Watch this movie on a big screen—you might feel like you’re experiencing this with the characters.

I’m not going to lie—I think that maybe “The River Wild” would have been more effective if it was just about this woman bringing her family to see the beautiful river before it’s “polluted,” and trying to settle things with her distant husband along the way. (And just drop the whole thing about the two guys and the thriller aspects.) That would have been an interesting family drama, and there could have been a lot played off from that.

But while reviewing for “The River Wild” for it is rather than what it isn’t, I still think it’s an effective thriller. Is it familiar? Yes. But it’s also well-executed and delivers the goods.

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