THE RIVER. Directed by Mark Rydell; written by Linda Gross; produced by Edward Lewis for Universal. Starring Mel Gibson, Sissy Spacek and Scott Glenn. Rated PG-13 (a little language, a little violence).
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The River is a movie about big subjects—rural poverty, man versus nature. But it succeeds because of little things. Its details result in memorable characters and a well-told story. Except for a somewhat contrived climax, The River is entertaining, absorbing and better than its kissing cousin, Country, which was out last fall.
Tom (Gibson) and Mae (Spacek) Garvey work a small farm next to a big river. The opening scenes of the movie dramatically show how vulnerable their homestead is. Heavy rains first chase their son from his fishing hole, then gradually raise the river level until it's over its banks and over their cropland.
Joe Wade (Glenn), childhood sweetheart of Mae and now an agribusiness executive, gives a visiting senator a helicopter tour of the area, after the weather clears. When he tells of his pIans to dam the river for flood control, irrigation water and hydroelectric power, it's easy to see how the conflict will shape up between him and the Garveys.
The predictability doesn't spoil the story, though, because through the fine acting and the good script the Garveys become a real family we really care about. Gibson and Spacek make an appealing screen couple, which involves more than just looking good together (which they do).
Shane Bailey and Becky Jo Lynch as their kids rate special mention too. They seem more like real chilren, and real siblings, than one usually finds in the movies. They're allowed interactions which establish the Garveys as a believeable family, not just individual characters.
But the "good guys" aren't the only interesting characters in The River. Glenn does a great job as the sometimes slimy, sometimes almost sympathetic, Wade. He has the script to thank for a bit of his success, though. A villain can't lose with lines like "Have a nice day," which he tells a banker right after urging him to squeeze the Garveys out of business.
With a situation as complicated as that faced by these people, though, the black hats and and white hats both tend to get a little gray. Remarkably, knowing that Wade is really right—the dam would be the best thing for the economically depressed area, as well as for him—doesn't detract from the story. We still root for the Garveys, even though they're actually being pretty masochistic to stick with farming.
But as interesting as the big picture is, it's the little things from The River that stick with you—Mae nursing a sick cow when the vet just can't be paid; Tom plowing around a small family cemetery; Lewis (Bailey) helping his sister learn to ride; the first shot of Wade's souped-up jeep, the perfect vehicle for such a character.
Country had memorable details, too, but these are grittier, more realistic and more effective. And they're used more skillfully. The makers of The River are simply better storytellers.
January 23, 1985