Writer Alice Hoffman has penned several books over the years. If you're familiar with her works then you know her style as being ripe with an offbeat sense of humor and full of supernaturalism. Her novels have not only proven to be fun to read but some talent in Hollywood thinks that they are good source for movies. It would seem that critics would disagree however, because 1998's Practical Magic was met with less than exuberant reviews. Her follow up novel-to-film project wasn't until seven years later with the quietly released The River King.
Starring Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen and 15 Minutes), The River King worked its way through Canadian film festivals and just saw release on DVD here in the U.S. One would say that is a telltale sign for the quality of the film, but you can never count out an Indie movie just because of a limited release. Unfortunately this movie in particular is difficult to nail down for several reasons. On one hand the plot features elements of a murder mystery while on the other it's an overbearing ghost story with a light romantic interlude. From start to finish I got the impression that the film didn't know what it wanted to be and that really threw me for a loop.
When a young boy named Gus is found dead in a frozen river, two cops arrive at the scene to conduct an investigation. Abel Grey (Burns) is your a-typical good cop with a do-gooder attitude and soft-spoken mannerism while his partner Joey Tosh (John Kapelos) is the standard bad cop with a sloppy look and corrupt nature. As they work their way through the investigation more questions are raised with every turn and twist.
Key people get some play here including a girl that had a relationship with the dead kid, his father, and a photography teacher named Betsy. The girl initially brings up the fact that they had an argument and that was the reason that Gus killed himself. Later on though, she unveils a strange hazing ritual that may have had something to do with his demise. As the tale progresses we get glimpses at flashbacks to the night of Gus' death and eventually things loosely mesh together.
Through investigation Abel discovers that the French teacher may have something to do with the little ritual. As if things aren't complicated enough the photography teacher that steps into the "picture" (sorry, I had to say it) is also the French teacher's fiancé. As she takes various photos from around the campus she notices ghostly images appearing and immediately thinks that it's Gus. She brings the photos to Abel and somehow that brings them closer together to the point that they hook up one night to do the horizontal mambo, thus providing The River King with its quota of blurry sex scenes.
The two have no real chemistry to speak of, but then again neither does any of the cast that's assembled here. Speaking of which, it's difficult to pinpoint characters or get to know anything about them. Abel's driving force for justice seems to stem from feelings regarding his dead brother, but it's handled so apathetically that it's not really buyable. Regardless it doesn't help make his character interesting or give the movie any kind of "edge".
The River King is a confounding film that crawls at a snail's pace from start to finish. It's filled with uninteresting characters, weak plotlines, and things that are just never really explained to satisfaction. By the time the credits rolled I still didn't care about how Gus died and was quite frankly I bored stiff. Sufficed to say the mystery here is a weak one at best and all together the movie doesn't really go anywhere from start to finish.
The River King is presented with a 16:9 widescreen transfer that looks pretty good for a film with a low budget. The image quality does suffer a tad from some shimmer, grain, and edge enhancement, but overall it's very fine. The lighter areas of the picture appear to offer the best capture because it's in the darker locations that the video gets a little muddy. Colors appear natural and vibrant even though the film itself is relatively drab and sparse.
As far as the audio is concerned The River King fairs decently enough as well with a Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. The sound is separated moderately with fair use of various channels, though to be fair it's not overly impressive. This is a movie with a lot of talky bits with very little in terms of music or sound effects, therefore just about everything comes from the front channel. I didn't encounter any technical flaws with the presentation during my viewing such as dropout or distortion. The disc also includes Spanish language as the only available subtitle track.
The DVD doesn't include any special features apart from some previews for The River King, Half Light, and Missing in America. I really would have liked a commentary or featurette that discussed the differences between Hoffman's novel and the movie script. Unfortunately neither is the case and this release is pretty barebones.
I have to admit that I had a very hard time getting into The River King. The pacing is egregiously slow and the characters have little to no personality or chemistry. I also found the plot to be poorly organized and generally uninteresting from start to finish. There were many points during the film where there was a glimmer of potential, but it got squandered as soon as the camera shifted focus to another plotline.
It may be mostly due to the loosely threaded story, but The River King feels underdeveloped and full of wasted potential. Unless you are a fan of Hoffman's writings or enjoyed her other films like Practical Magic and the newly released Aquamarine I'm going to suggest that you skip this one.
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