The River is the last of this year's unusual cycle of farm movies and, in my opinion, the best. Curiously, it is also the most "Hollywood" of the three. Places in the Heart was originally an attempt to display a tapestry of life in a rural Texas town in the 1930s, and never entirely lost that character. Country is downbeat and overtly political. The River, on the other hand, could very easily have been made at any time in Hollywood's history. It tells a rather conventional story, in a rather conventional way. It even has that Hollywood staple, a central role cast in a manner that outwardly seems to have more to do with box office than appropriateness. Despite its familiarity, though, I found The River to be much more satisfying than the other two films. Its pleasures are the pleasures of fine craftsmanship; if these pleasures are not equal to those of great art, they are probably the next best thing.
The River centers around the struggles of a farming family in Tennessee. They have the misfortune to own a farm on the banks of a river which is given to flooding. When the floods get too bad, their crops are washed away, along with anything else not anchored down. The film starts with just such a disaster. A rain storm which at first seems pleasantly blustery becomes a torrential downpour. The river rises, and the family's efforts to dam it come to naught. They must flee with the belongings they can carry, to return after the flood abates so they can salvage what the river hasn't destroyed.
Sissy Spacek and Mel Gibson play the husband and wife. Yes, that's right, Mel Gibson: Mad Max - The Road Warrior, more recently seen as Mr. Christian in The Bounty. Mel Gibson, Australia's biggest star. What, you may ask, is an Australian doing in Tennessee? Well, in this case, feeling right at home. Gibson's accent and mannerisms are flawless. Had I never seen him before, I think I would have assumed that he was an American, and probably a Southern, actor. (Of course, Gibson really is an American citizen; his father took the family to Australia over ten years ago as he had moral objections to his sons being forced to kill Vietnamese.) Not only is Gibson's accent flawless, but his performance is superb. He makes us see every emotion felt by his decent but stubborn character as he moves from one trouble to the next. This performance confirms that Gibson is not just another pretty face or merely suitable for action pictures. Mel Gibson is a movie star and actor in the old fashioned mode, of a type that hasn't been seen for many years. Comparisons to the likes of Clark Gable and William Holden may be a bit premature, but would be well to keep in mind.
Sissy Spacek matches him. Of course, she is rural South by birth and upbringing, but there is much more to her performance than authenticity. She molds an extremely believable picture of a strong, modern woman in an old-fashioned setting. Spacek's character is required to bring in a corn crop all by herself, and she really looks like she can do it, and bake bread, and take care of her children, and rescue herself from peril if she has to, and be there for her man when he needs her. Some people find Spacek to be plain, or even ugly. I've always thought that she radiates an inner beauty based on strength of character. Her role in The River confirms my impression. Mark Rydell, the director of The River, has spoken of her as "carrying the truth like a torch," and she uses it to illuminate this film.
As Rydell is also fond of saying, movies don't make themselves and they aren't accidents. Rydell is not the most inspired of American directors, but he is talented, and he usually takes only the assignments he truly cares about (though I wonder how anyone could have cared about Harry and Walter Go To New York). His concern shows in The River. He gives his films a lot of thought, too, and is one of the few directors I've heard speak who can really explain what he wanted in his films; and, given a chance, he will do so, almost to the point of garrulity. Rydell was intimately involved in all aspects of the production, so most of what is good in The River, and there is much, reflects on him in part. Rydell has also handled his actual direction duties very well. Particularly impressive are the opening scenes and a sequence in which a confused deer wanders into a steel mill.
Beyond the performances, which are fine in the supporting roles as well as in the leads, the most obvious virtue of The River is the photography. Vilmos Zsigmond has produced the most beautiful cinematography I have seen this year. There are ravishing shots of the river in many moods, as well as well conceived montages of the beauties and perils of rain. Zsigmond is able to make a broken down steel mill look good without losing track of its grittiness and squalor. Much of The River was filmed in the golden light of afternoon, but even interiors are perfectly lit. To top it off, Zsigmond and Rydell had the good fortune (for them, bad for everyone else involved) to be visiting Alabama at the time of some major floods; they came back with impressive helicopter shots of the devastation of a real flood.
Which brings us to one of the other major behind-the-scenes heros of The River: Charles Rosen the production designer. As in most big budget films made in Hollywood nowadays, the little details of sets and costumes are nicely handled. Rosen's great triumph is the flood sequences. To make them, the film company reclaimed a patch of swamp land on the banks of a river, built a complete farm there, installed massive flood control equipment, and gained the cooperation of both federal and state governments to get temporary control over the amount of water flowing down the river. Then they chained down the cameras, tied the actors to tethers, crossed their fingers, opened a huge steel floodgate, and let hundreds of thousands of gallons of water flood their set. Then they closed the floodgate, pumped out the water, cleaned up the set, and did it again. Feats of generalship like this, or Richard Attenborough's staging of Gandhi's funeral (which involved literally hundreds of thousands of extras), or D.W. Griffith's Babylon sequences from Intolerance never fail to make me respect a director more, particularly when they are effectively filmed. The River's flood sequences are extremely effective.
Lastly, the script deserves some praise. It's very well constructed. Every incident fits neatly into the framework of the overall story. We understand the purpose of every scene, and the movie's themes are nicely merged. I would mention the screenwriter's name, but unfortunately I don't remember it, and, since The River will not be released for nearly a month yet, I can't look it up in ads. Whatever his name is, he did a better job than William Whitliff did on Country, though his assignment was similar. He was sent out to the Midwest to write a script about the plight of farmers. What he came up with is quite creditable.
In all, I strongly recommend The River. It's an honest, well-intentioned, well-executed story of the continuing hard times of America's farmers. The ending is upbeat, yet not foolishly optimistic. Revelations, either artistic or social, are not to be expected, but you can count on solid, respectable storytelling and all of the virtues of a first class Hollywood film.
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