'River Wild' isn't wild enough Action film or family saga? It can't decide

September 30, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The river may or may not be within us, but it certainly is within Meryl Streep's extremely wet new movie.

In "The River Wild," Streep is somewhat awkwardly cast as a slightly neurotic action hero who leads her slightly neurotic family on a rafting trip down some picturesque Western rapids where she comes to the aid of a fellow rafter, in clear violation of the first rule your mother taught you: Never pick up a hitchhiker.

The hitchhiker -- Kevin Bacon -- turns out to be a pale-eyed killer, one of those glib-tongued petty criminals with a homicidal bent who seems to have wandered in from the set of a Quentin Tarantino movie. His agenda is to commandeer the family vacation into a getaway (professionally, he's an armed robber), and if anyone stands against him, they get the bad news fast.

The movie is certainly exciting as pure spectacle, long on H2O, short on logic. Curtis Hanson, who directed, gets his feet very wet, and probably most of his lower torso. He photographs the action at raft level, watching cleverly as the terrified family, and the killer and a buddy, race down waters not meant to be assaulted by man, a river that snaps, twists and spirals like a dragon's whippy tail while blasting droplets of foam about so intensely that they seem like shrapnel. It's like watching the Brady family riding a Cuisinart vortex on a potato chip.

The film pursues double themes. At the top, it's straight action, the story of a desperately perilous journey, made more %o dangerous by the presence of predatory, ruthless criminals. Think "Deliverance," with Streep in the Burt Reynolds role. Underneath, it's that familiar '90s trope, the story of a dysfunctional family, whose ordeal turns into an extended session with a family guidance counselor. These two halves really never get in syncopation, however.

Alas, the film is so freighted with what might be called "thriller gizmos," it strains credulity. If the director introduces something, we know that it will be tidily used somewhere down the line. In other words, to set up key sequences, the characters have to be overloaded with credentials to explain their amazing collection of arcane skills.

Not only is Streep presented as an extremely intelligent and capable wife and mother living in Boston, but, in order for the movie to work, it turns out that in her youth she was a river guide in the wilds of the West. That's stretching it, but then another level of expertise is piled atop the frail structure: It turns out, furthermore, that her father is deaf, so that she knows sign language, which helpfully gives her and her husband and son a secret method of communication when they are taken over by Bacon and his big bad gun.

Furthermore, since the movie has two agendas -- the adventure and the ordeal of the dysfunctional family -- it's never quite able to reach a resonant level of pure action. Not only must the ordeal be survived by the family, it must unify them. This means that the somewhat incompetent husband -- David Strathairn as an overworked architect -- must be part of the resolution.

So the movie's plot wheezes and clanks laboriously to split him off from the main party and find him a way to set up an ambush that expresses not his savagery -- he has none -- but his mechanical aptitude. Like, in a thriller, I really want to see a guy building mysterious Rube Goldberg contraptions in the middle of the wilderness? Thus, "The River Wild" is that most flawed of all pulp fictions, the one that builds a nice head of steam and then lets it all slip away in a bogus climax that somehow violates the spirit of the events that have come before.

It seems afraid to let go: The PG-13 rating may make business sense, but it communicates the fact that the movie will never be dangerous or unsettling, and it never is. There's nothing approaching the anal rape of "Deliverance." The violence is muted and discreet, never appalling, and the sexual tension between Streep and Bacon has been dialed way down. What they want is what they get: a nice, tidy, polite thriller.

Even Streep's character seems a little out of focus. I'm not sure what attitude we're supposed to have toward her.

She seems initially conceived as simple heroine-mother and martyred victim to her husband's career obsessiveness, but as the movie wends it way downstream, it becomes clear that maybe she's not so innocent and he's not so guilty or, at least, guilt and innocence may not have much to do with it: It turns out she's one of those obsessive perfectionists who must do well in everything and that she's got her poor hubby terrified of not being able to live up to her standards.

"The River Wild" is the movie mild.

"The River Wild"

Starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon

Directed by Curtis Hanson

Released by Universal

Rated PG-13

** 1/2

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