Monday, January 21, 2013

Wild Open Waters

Saturday was a long day that began with a discussion about The Guilt Trip on the radio that turned into a delirious vaudeville act of Barbra Streisand jokes, and then developed into a day out at the tennis. I cheered on players I didn't know against other players I didn't know (they turned out to be good matches though, and the games involving more famous players like the Williams sisters and Tsonga were straight set duds), and briefly spotting Novak Djokavic. Naturally I was surrounded by onlookers who were, like me, only out for a perve (er, can you blame us?). By the time I got home late in the evening I needed some movie viewing that wasn't, shall we say, dramatically challenging. After digging through the stacks of films I have, I chose The River Wild. Because, you know, why not?

Directed by Curtis Hanson - "from the director of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" as the poster of elegantly states - this 1994 actioner is one one of those rare beasts that sees an actress of Meryl Streep's age and stature (she was a 45-year-old, duel Oscar winner at the time) taking charge of a genre film. In that regard, The River Wild had a lot of interest behind it for me, not to mention that this era in Meryl Streep's career is a particularly curious one to navigate with titles like She-Devil, Death Becomes Her, and Postcards from the Edge, which were, at the time, seemingly anomalous for her as they branched into thoroughly unprestigious territory.

However, as the end credits rolled, I couldn't help but wish she'd do this more often. Streep obviously verges more on the mainstream side of the fence than some may think, but she so often takes roles in films that are only fleetingly as good and interesting as her performances in them. Making Mamma Mia! may have defied expectations once, but not anymore, and it'd be great if she could take on an original property that felt truly unique and necessary. I'd love to see her put that enviable skill to another film like The River Wild, or, as I've long wished - and said so on multiple occasions - a scary film in the tradition of The Innocents and The Others. Hell, if they have to remake Gaslight like they keep threatening, I'd dive at the chance to see Streep's take on the material. It would certainly pique my interest, because as much as I look forward to the big screen adaptation of August: Osage County, her casting feels particularly musky.

David Straithairn, Josh C Reilley, Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, and the kid from Jurassic Park!

Hell, if they just went and rereleased The River Wild, I am sure its reception would be a hell of a lot more positive than it was in 1994. It's score on Rotten Tomatoes - always an iffy prospect for movies made before, say, 2000 - indicates a 50/50 split between those who didn't like it and those who enjoyed it as little more than disposable genre fluff. It's very easy to hypothesise that if this white water rafting thrill-seaker action flick (yes, I'm guessing that was once used as a way to sell The River Wild!) being made today with, for instance, Jessica Chastain (they'd naturally cast younger, but in a pinch maybe they'd choose Sandra Bullock?) and Jeremy Renner in the Kevin Bacon villain role and being greeted with rapturous response. Given the dire state of action filmmaking, The River Wild's more old school sensibility - lack of plastic CGI, actual identifiably flawed human characters, established adult actors over "next big thing" type gambles - would surely prove a calming respite from a world full of John Carter, The Hobbit, and The Avengers. I mean, the amount of times I've read "good enough" (or a variation of it) in relation to an action film outside the realm of superheroes and sci-fi is alarming.

It's perhaps possible to make the argument that I am projecting modern day action film disappointment on to The River Wild and claiming it to be greater than it actually it. I certainly wouldn't shoot you down if you said that, but I do think the film is a remarkably effective one for many of the reasons I've already stated. Streep's aura of authority looms over the film, propelling its dramatic moments to as high a peak as its adventurous, oft-thrilling action setpieces. I admired the way Jerry Goldsmith's score and Robert Elswit's cinematography go together so handsomely. And I though Hanson's handling of the action scenes - as potentially messy and discombobulating as ones involving white water rafting could get - were all superb. "Meryl Streep kicks ass" isn't a saying that can be uttered all that often, but in doing so here she helped make The River Wild a cut above the rest. B+



I think the reason she hasn't done something scary is STILL OF THE NIGHT (1982) which she herself supposedly counts as one of her worst performances. if i'm remembering correctly she said she felt like she didn't understand acting for that genre or some such.

forever1267 said...

I was a theater manager at AMC Galleria in St. Louis, MO, when this came out. Despite the fact that the screen was several walls away from the office, we could always tell when the climax was happening by the roaring, rumbling noise of the river. We would announce to incoming audience members, "you WILL get wet!". Fun movie.