Directed by Robert Redford
I don’t think A River Runs Through It has aged well. It seems to have gotten good reviews upon its release, but dear god this movie is incredibly boring. It’s about fly fishing and brotherhood, but who cares about these brothers? And who cares about fly fishing? I mean, I get that it means something to some people, but the movie is very sentimental, shoving your face in this without letting you feel anything. It’s like director Robert Redford thinks this will be the first movie to let you experience death. Like when a grandparent or your first dog dies. Redford takes a knee and, in a hushed voice, says, “son, this is the way of the world. People die, it’s okay.” But what he doesn’t realize is that you’ve just witnessed a massacre of friends and loved ones, so you furrow your brow and say, “thanks Rob, but I’m pretty sure I get the concept.”
That massacre is symbolic, I guess. I’ve seen plenty of movies dealing with death and destruction, and there are many that came out way before 1992. A River Runs Through It is just painfully sentimental. It’s very cheesy, unevenly paced, and everything just feels like a ripoff of what came before it. It’s particularly painful when the narrator has to come back in and tell us to be sad, like Redford is holding our hand through this journey.
The story involves a family living in Missoula, Montana. There are two boys, Norman and Paul Maclean, who we observe for a little while as children before the necessary jump in time so we can get to our lead actors, including Brad Pitt.
First of all, I kind of hate this trope, if you can call it that, of showing the characters as children, like the movie is force-feeding us a reason to feel sympathetic to their plight. When (spoiler alert) Paul dies in the end (offscreen), I didn’t feel extra sympathy because I remembered what he was like as a young child. If I care, it should be because I liked the character, and we mostly follow him as an adult. It would be like if anytime anyone died, you were shown their first grade school photo, just to make sure you cared.
So the movie starts with them as boys, and they first learn about fishing from their stern, pastor father. We’re also told that they’re both tough, and Paul is particularly tough. Then we jump through time. Normal goes off to school in the east, and Paul stays close to home. He later becomes a reporter for the local paper.
The bulk of the story takes place when Norman returns home for a bit. Suddenly the nuclear family is reunited. Paul is a great fisherman, though it’s still just a hobby, and Norman is looking for work. He also meets and falls in love with a woman and has a feud with her drunken brother, particularly after the brother seems to disrespect Norman and Paul’s fishing pastime. Then this brother takes the train to California, and that’s it.
Norman decides to marry this girl, and he accepts a teaching job in Chicago. He asks Paul to come live with them, but Paul says he can never leave Montana. And that’s about it….
Oh yeah, except for the part where we’re reminded that Paul is a little tough, bordering on crazy. He’s a gambler, apparently, and this is all set up for later, when Norman learns that his brother was killed in some kind of brawl. You kind of saw that coming, because there’s always a death in these types of movies.
So, this story is based on a memoir by Norman Maclean. I’m sure it’s a good piece of writing, but made into a movie it all feels very unnecessary. The movie I first think of, after watching this, is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, a vastly different film but which deals in three different time periods like this one.
They both show the main characters as kids, as adults, then the protagonist as an old man, reflecting on these events. Leone’s director’s cut ran very long and cut up these time periods so that it wasn’t all kids scenes, then adult scenes, then old man scenes. Instead we get to meet Robert De Niro as an adult before flashing back to him as a child. And the point is to get to meet the adult character, we want to see De Niro more than we want to see the children. Knowing how he ends up (as a gangster on the run), influences how we see him as a child when we finally see those flashbacks.
I’m not saying River should have done something like that, but I just didn’t care about the kids. So they’re kids, and they have a stern father, okay. I guess this worked for other people, but the first act just felt unimportant. This is what’s expected from a movie like this, to show most of the kids’ lives onscreen, but it all felt like a prologue. The only important piece of information, other than their blossoming love of fishing, is the mention that Paul is a feisty fella. This is set up for when we’re told he later died in a brawl.
I really just found this to be a boring, overly sentimental film, but maybe I’m too cynical. I’ve also just seen so many movies by know that have combined a somber voice over with the soft strings of a beautiful orchestral track. It’s a formula, pathos + orchestra = empathy, or something like that. But everything felt so formulaic that it was hard to buy into anything. This is almost a parody of the type of movie this wanted to be, like a lesser version of something like Stand By Me.
And you know what, this is basically a coming of age story, right? Norman learns some stuff about the world, falls in love, etc. But I think those types of movies work best when they follow children, because we’ll buy it if a kid stumbles through these lessons, because that’s when you learn those lessons, as a kid.
But as an adult, Norman Maclean just felt very… what’s the word, helpless. He also felt very uninteresting, but a lot of his behavior felt very childlike, especially the way he approaches the woman he ends up marrying. So if he was a child, I might say, “yeah that makes sense,” but as an adult, his behavior just feels kind of frustrating. Still, this is based on a pre-existing work, so it’s not like the movie was going to take any giant step away from the source material.
But this movie had favorable reviews, and I guess it was considered a “star making” role for Brad Pitt who had just come off his brief turn in Thelma & Louise.
Up Next: Dogtooth (2009), Faces (1968), The Hateful Eight (2015)