Film Review: THE RIVER WILD, 1994

Tribute review for director Curtis Hanson who died today at the age of 71. 

Movie Reviews

Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, David Strathairn, John C Reilly, Joseph Mazzello


Meryl Streep takes on a pair of armed killers while navigating a spectacularly violent river.


I was in the middle of doing some pushing buttons work on the computer and I wanted to watch something while doing it to pass the time. So I flipped through the channels and saw that The River Wild was about to begin. I am always a fan of Meryl Streep because I love to analyze her body of work and the choices she makes. Yes, Streep will go down as one of the great actors of all-time, as she is an outstanding actor, but she also understands that it’s all about the films she works on. There are many a great actor who are lost in the wilderness of Hollywood because they work on mediocre films and few people know who they are. You are only as good as the team you work with and Streep knows that more than anyone. Chose your projects wisely.

There is a rule of thumb for actors (actors who have a choice of projects to pick) that you should only decide to work on a project if you can answer yes twice in the Rule of 3s. The Rule of 3s is that you feel confident in #1 – the script, #2 – the director and #3 – the actors already attached. If you can say yes to two, then you should do it but of course you are always looking to answer yes for all three. If you like the script and are not confident in the other two choices, then don’t do the project. The project will fail if only one answer out of the three questions is yes.

Streep (and her people) pick the right projects. And each project she does you will see that it’s something she’s never done before. She is always pushing her inner performance as far as she possibly can. All the while most of her films are recognized because she works on good projects with talented people.

The River Wild is Streep’s action film. She previously mastered the drama, the romance and the comedy genres, so action was next for her. As of this writing, it’s 2009 and I bet that she has a few fantasy and comic book movies in her to star in. Why not?

The setting of The River Wild is the world of white water rafting. Streep plays Gale, a history teacher mother of two who used to be a professional rafter. On vacation, she takes her son on the journey through the waters she grew up in. Along with her is her husband, but there is a lot of friction between the two. And the son has some issues too with his dad. But now there is just the three of them in a rafting boat with only the water (and their dog) and the beautiful scenery around them. A great place for a family to get reconnected.

Then they meet some drifters (Kevin Bacon and an up and coming actor John C. Reilly) who appear to be good people at the beginning but of course aren’t. Bacon always plays a good heel as he seems to enjoy chewing the scenery playing a man who’s a little unbalanced. His scenes with Streep are a lot of fun as they both are playing their own inner acting game. Streep’s close-ups in The River Wild are a thing of beauty as she is playing a type-A obsessive type who doesn’t like to lose but also a mother of two who’s first instinct is to protect her children. There’s a lot going on in those eyes of hers.

David Strathairn plays Streep’s husband. An actor who could be the greatest ‘that guy’ actor in cinema history. He’s been in 100s of films, but he’s never played the lead in a major Hollywoood film or doesn’t play the macho type of actor who plays army types or cops. He always does those roles that other actors don’t want to do or can’t do. A man who can tap into his emotional core and can be your average American. His role in The River Wild is the thankless role that if not performed right, will tear down the entire film.

So while doing my pushing buttons job, I watched a film that flew by as I enjoyed every minute. The themes of A River Wild are a little hokey as they try to tie the kidnapping angle with the reason a family gets closer together, which was a tad pushed. But overall this is a fun film. Director Curtis Hanson then went on to make two terrific films in LA Confidential and Wonder Boys as he caught the Meryl Streep magic. Take a look at the director’s next film after Streep worked with them. They all seem to make a terrific follow up film. Is it a coincidence? Or is it Meryl?

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