River Wild, The (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As thrillers go, The River Wild is a cut below a "white-knuckler," but it still has its share of spills and chills. Crafted by Curtis Hanson with considerably more style and substance than his previous effort, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild represents for its audience just about what you might expect from a film with that title.

It's the tenth birthday for Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), and his mother Gail (Meryl Streep) has agreed to take him white water rafting to celebrate the occasion. She knows the territory well, having spent years working as a guide. Workaholic dad Tom (David Strathairn) at first refuses to accompany them but, after a guilty conscience prods him to join the family outing, he seems determined not to enjoy himself. Brooding, not boating, is his specialty.

Also on the river are Wade (Kevin Bacon) and Terry (John C. Reilly), a pair of inept rafters who have supposedly lost their guide. Gail, not wanting to strand them five days from civilization, agrees to let them join her party. Along the trip downstream, as both parents' distrust of the strangers grows, Roarke becomes fascinated by his new friends, especially when Wade shows him a loaded gun. From that point, the story moves in a sinister direction, with hostages being taken and lives threatened.

The River Wild has its share of tense moments. The plot beneath the action is flimsy at best, but there's enough on-screen energy to overcome this deficiency. Adding noticeable value is the fine quality of the cast. These aren't just personalities thrown into suitable roles (a la Keanu Reeves in Speed). Meryl Streep and David Strathairn are well-respected actors who have done some incredible work in the past. As was true of Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro in Scorsese's Cape Fear, the presence of two extremely capable performers lifts The River Wild more than a notch. Kevin Bacon, who typically plays a "nice guy" is effective cast against type as a ruthless killer.

Top-of-the-line production values are of equal importance. Expansive cinematography and an apt score transfer a portion of the rafting experience to the audience. No one is likely to get seasick from The River Wild, but the roller-coaster pace of the picture easily matches the ups and downs of the rapids.

Streep gives as much to this movie as it gives to her - a chance to enter the thin ranks of strong female action heros (a category currently occupied by Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton). Her Gail is a powerful personality - not only emotionally and mentally, but physically as well. The final coup de grace is a positive triumph for women in these sorts of roles.

With The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, director Hanson showed that he could manipulate characters and situations within the comfortable confines of a formula plot. With The River Wild, he does considerably more. The thriller framework is still familiar, but the results exhibit a welcome freshness. With a pace and level of excitement designed to submerge implausibilities and minor gaffes, The River Wild braves the rapids while keeping the viewer afloat amidst its churning waters.

River Wild, The (United States, 1994)

Director: Curtis Hanson
Cast: Meryl Streep, David Strathairn, Joseph Mazzello, Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly
Screenplay: Dennis O'Neill
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1994-09-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: