Words flood Redford's 'River,' never allowing emotions to surface

October 23, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

A river runs through it but nothing happens in it.

Robert Redford's beautiful but meandering "A River Runs Through It" is WASP storytelling at its most muted and muffled. It's a movie that never truly becomes a movie, hiding its interesting story behind a torrent of language derived sentence by long sentence from the source novel by Norman Maclean.

Only when the movie devolves to its most passionate subject -- men hunting fish in the cold waters of a rushing Montana torrent -- does it achieve a fluency and an immediacy. One senses their joy in the ritual and the rich song of blood rushing through their brains as they sink wholeheartedly into predation. Redford loves to watch the silken flick of the rods and track the gossamer line as it snaps and curls over the surface of the water. And he loves the fight between man and fish that is the climax of the stalk. But what this means is that in a curious sense, Redford the filmmaker suffers from the same emotional clottage as the Maclean men he chronicles: as a filmmaker, he's only comfortable in the water.

The story somewhat limply tracks the fates of the Maclean brothers across 25 years of this century, from 1910 to 1935, as the laws of character sentence them to opposite destinies. Norman (Craig Sheffer) is the older boy, the sensitive narrator, drawn to an academic life. He's very much his stern father's perfect construction: Duty-bound and somewhat dull, he's the good son. But, if fishing reveals the soul of the man, what it says about Norman is that he's not quite got the spunk. He'll be a good fly fisherman . . . but not a great one. Greatness is invested instead in Paul.

Paul (Brad Pitt) has the natural grace of genius. In the water, as in life itself, things come easily to Paul. In fact, in the film's best sequence, Paul hooks a large trout, a real fighter, and the battle royale that goes on between them reminded me of Hemingway's Santiago out there in the gulf stream fighting that big blue beautiful marlin. The fish tries to kill him, yanking him through the rapids. It's touch and go, but finally: Paul 1, Fish 0. But because Paul burns so brightly, he burns more quickly. A gambler and a drinker and a natural smartass, he's quickly in trouble with gamblers and irking the powerful mining interests that not-so-secretly rule Montana. He's clearly on a collision course with catastrophe.

But storyteller Redford keeps interrupting this most interesting of his themes to tell other less-compelling stories: Norman's courtship of Jessie, a spirited local girl; Norman and Paul's contempt for Jessie's poor oaf of a handsome brother, a Hollywood wannabe who shows up to fish with . . . worms!

There are other lesser but still irritating flaws. Redford himself narrates the story and cannot seem to shut himself up; there's entirely too much telling and not nearly enough showing. It's as if he's drunk on the sonorous rhythms of Maclean's prose. There's also some mildly dislocating correspondence problems, in that although the dark and tall Norman is telling the story in Redford's instantly recognizeable voice, one tends to associate not Norman but Paul with Redford, because Pitt, with that penumbra of cascading blond hair and that pugnaciously handsome face, so resembles the young Redford. And finally, Tom Skerritt, as the boy's stern but fair father, looks as if he were born and aged to play the part, but his performance is a small and winsome thing, not at all compelling.

Finally, I think, that in some sense Redford just doesn't get it: he hasn't yet figured out how to tell a delicate story in film images in such a way that we feel what can't be pressed into words. The fishing story I thought of was not "A River Runs Through It" but Hemingway's brilliant "Big Two-Hearted River," in which Nick Adams, up in Michigan, thigh-deep in another rushing river, hunts trout. Of course, Nick is just back from the war and Hemingway never mentions the war, but as Nick tries to lose himself in the pure Zen of the fishing, we feel the war's presence looming like a thunderhead over the tree line; the unsaid thing becomes the most powerful force in the story. Redford's Paul is a similar subject, though what consumes him isn't the memory of battle but the attraction of death; yet the filmmaker can't find a way to make that real. It's the big one that got away.

'A River Runs Through It'

Starring Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt.

Directed by Robert Redford.

Released by Columbia.

Rate PG.

** 1/2 stars

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