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River, The (1984)
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by Jack Sommersby

"This Ain't 'Green Acres'"
4 stars

Solid lead actors and some generally good writing make this a worthwhile diversion for those tired of special-effects-laden fare.

With a couple of false scenes, some occasional overexplicit dialogue, and a conclusion so ludicrous it comes close to undermining a good deal of the solidity preceding it, The River isn't a great movie. Still, out of the save-the-farm tales that came out the same year, it's the best of the lot: more vivid and interesting than Richard Pearce's just-average Country, minus the saccharine of Robert Benton's platitudinous Places from the Heart. The first of its attributes is the convincing pairing of Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek as Tom and Mae Garvey, an East Tennessee couple with a teenage son and pre-teen daughter trying to make ends meet with their three-generation farm, which has the bad luck to be located right next to a river that floods whenever the rainfall is heavy. At the beginning, we see Tom trying to fight the effects of a torrential downpour by bulldozing mud and sandbagging a levy; the machine capsizes on him, and Mae and the children try to free Tom whose leg is caught underneath (which foreshadows another near-tragedy later on down the line). The next morning a state senator tours the overnight damage from a helicopter manned by the town bigshot Joe Wade (Scott Glenn), a wealthy man who wants to buy up the lands of the struggling farmers so he can build a hydroelectric dam that will, he argues, create jobs and provide cheap electricity. But Tom, whose family is buried on the land, refuses to sell even when the bank refuses to loan him any more money -- the president of the bank is sympathetic to Tom's plight, though, and agrees to roll over his notes to keep him afloat, much to chagrin of Joe, who subtly threatens to pull his company's account if he doesn't start putting more of a squeeze on the farmers. In a particularly affecting sequence, the farmers put some of their equipment and personal items up at a downtown auction, where they get little more than a pittance for them: there aren't a lot of takers in that more and more farmers are selling; and the ones remaining don't have a lot to bid with (Tom's John Deere seed planter sells for thousands fewer than it's worth). While Tom isn't interested in selling, Mae points out that after everything they'll have twenty-eight-thousand dollars left over. Being that Tom's a first-rate welder, couldn't they use that money for a down payment on a home in the city where Tom could find work, we ask? Wouldn't that be better than drowning in debt year after year, counting on next season's harvest even though, what with the unpredictable weather, it's more likely Tom will be lucky just to break even?

Some may be put off by Tom's innate stubbornness, and it's this that makes Mae somewhat receptive to her childhood friend Joe's flirtations (he's married, too), but even when we can't at times sympathize with Tom, we do emphasize with his plight. And Gibson should be credited with the willingness to play a sometimes-unpleasant man. He lets us see that Tom has let the love for his land interfere with his judgment for what's best for his family in the long run; with the cost of maintaining a farm going up and the price of crops going down, Tom has the extra burden of that rampaging river to contend with; and because he can't afford to hire even the unemployed homeless laborers in town, his children, doing work in dangerous conditions, are paying the price. Gibson is perhaps a bit too held-in (he doesn't quite radiate the strong-and-silent Gary Cooper-like magnetism intended), but he's always believable and stays in character. As for Spacek, whose first country-woman portrait resulted in an Oscar win for Coal Miner's Daughter, she's fresh and appealing, and matches up well with Gibson -- we can believe in the Garveys' devotion to one another, and when they indulge in some spontaneous lovemaking in a hot kitchen in the middle of the day, the passion and eroticism are palpable. Directing them is Mark Rydell whose checkered history includes the uneven Bette Midler star vehicle The Rose and unbearable Henry Fonda/Kathryn Hepburn vomitus On Golden Pond, and who pulls himself together here and does an honorable job, particularly in a harrowing scene where Mae gets her arm caught in a pulley underneath a reaper and must antagonize a huge steer nearby to charge at the machine to free her before she bleeds to death. It also helps that the cinematographer is Vilmos Zsigmond, the best in the business; as he demonstrated in Deliverance, he can do beauty-of-nature lighting without it spilling over into too-prettiness. But the screenplay has its fissures. Tom goes to work as a scab at a steel mill whose workers are on strike; the scabs are near starvation (they're forced to live on the premises), and a deer makes its way into the mill, and the workers stop whatever they're doing and corner the animal, but let it go after seeing how frightened it is. And when the strike is over and the scabs have to walk out the gate with a horde of angry strikers on the other side, they, like the deer, are allowed to pass without harm. Too schematic. And the last fifteen minutes where Joe is temporarily made into a one-dimensional villain partaking in implausible actions is odious at best. In a movie with a good deal of truth to it, contrivances like these puncture rather than punctuate the commendable proceedings.

The DVD sports a very fine transfer, good audio separations, and some interesting production notes.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=7710&reviewer=327
originally posted: 03/20/14 12:45:24
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User Comments

8/29/04 R.W. Welch Save-the-farm saga is pretty stock stuff though well-enough acted. 3 stars
5/19/03 Charles Tatum Spacek is great, but dopey ending ruins good intentions 2 stars
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  19-Dec-1984 (PG-13)



Directed by
  Mark Rydell

Written by
  Robert Dillon
  Julian Barry

  Sissy Spacek
  Mel Gibson
  Scott Glenn
  Shane Bailey
  Becky Jo Lynch
  Don Hood

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