The River Wild
Director: Curtis Hanson. Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, David Strathairn, Joseph Mazzello, John C. Reilly, Benjamin Bratt. Screenplay: Denis O'Neill.

Pauline Kael, who never cared much for Meryl Streep, once complained that the actress has made a career out of seeming to be miscast. That summation may bear a certain amount of truth, and if so, rarely more than in the case of The River Wild, where Meryl does the Geena Davis thing and demonstrates to whomever remains unconvinced that a woman can capably steer an action thriller. Steering is a literal metaphor in this case, since the part in which Meryl is currently "miscast" is that of a whitewater enthusiast and onetime river-rafting guide who is dragooned by a couple of thieves into ushering them through a daunting stretch of rapids to escape authorities on their tail. Meryl, held captive in her raft along with her white-collar drone of a husband (David Strathairn) and young son (Joseph Mazzello), knows that her survival is necessary to the criminals in a way that her family's is not; in fact, and in what qualifies in action movies as dramatic irony, the survival of this family is simultaneously though less literally imperiled by murmurings about possible divorce and Mazzello's resentment of his dad's workaholism.

So, even if the gender of the hero is different, neither the circumstantial absurdity nor the strange convolutions of logic endemic to movies of this ilk differ substantially from what we're used to. We know that, even though a man who cannot swim, however psychopathic, would probably think of reasons not to rely on both the kindness of strangers and a white-water escape route in order to avoid the cops. We know that, however many close-ups we receive of churning rapids, the threats of vicious undertows, freezing glacial water, and converging currents are by defintion almost impossible to express cinematically. Even Titanic was powerless to show us how cold water can get. We also know, however, that if Meryl & Co. can succeed in making their way through the Gauntlet, the canyoned stretch of water shut down to rafters because so few have come out alive, a strange transitive property that functions only in Hollywood will restore to safety both their physical bodies and their blissful status as a family unit.

What is pleasing to report about The River Wild is that director Curtis Hanson and cinematographer Robert Elswit (who both hit career highs three years later with, respectively, L.A. Confidential and Boogie Nights), resist the urge just to go through the motions and set themselves with conviction to the technical and generic demands of this movie. We actually believe at some moments that all members of the family may not make it. Even the sociopathic tendencies of the mastermind thief, played by Kevin Bacon, are concealed for a long enough time that the picture can generate tension without announcing too early the precise nature of the danger or the exact shape of everything that is to follow. It helps to have on hand such capable actors as John C. Reilly, another future Boogie Nighter, Joseph Mazzello of the Jurassic Park films, and David Strathairn, an actor so understated but intimate with his characters that we almost don't notice what well-muscled legs and physical agility he has for a corporate slave. (For more of Strathairn combatting the Fierce Outdoors, check out John Sayles' vaguely similar family-drama-cum-action-thriller Limbo.)

I assume it goes without saying that Mary Louise Streep, miscast or not, contributes a bracing performance both for the camera, which continues to find new angles of her fascinating face, and in the boat, where the actress did virtually all of her own stuntwork. This picture is probably not destined for the opening or closing night slots in any Streep retrospectives, but even while playing a fairly straightforward part in an utterly conventional picture, she achieves a degree of feeling and availability to the audience rare in the paragon moments of most other actors' careers. Even Meryl Streep, of course, cannot cover over the tremendous gaps in logic or the groaningly obvious directions the film takes as it wends its way closer to its climax. Still, The River Wild is a totally unnecessary picture that for the most part manages to divert us from its own fundamental irrelevance. I hate to think of the kind of money and energy that gets spent just so the world can watch great actresses thwack bad guys in the gut with an oar, but The River Wild's achievement, modest though it may be, is that we don't actually worry about it while we watch. Grade: C+

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Meryl Streep
Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Bacon

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