At some point in its production history, The River Murders went by the far more interesting title, The River Sorrow. I'm glad the name change occurred because the current title is far more indicative of the drab and generic serial killer thriller this film turned out to be.
Jack Verdon (Ray Liotta) is a good cop who happens to be having a bad day. His ex-girlfriend's body was discovered in the river and he's the prime suspect. His wife (Gisele Fraga) and boss (Ving Rhames) have faith in his innocence. Unfortunately that won't be enough when another body pops up...belonging to yet another past lover. Did I mention that Jack was a massive man-whore back in the day? This becomes evident when the investigating FBI agent (Christian Slater) asks Jack for a list of women he's had relationships with, only to be met with a blank stare that translates to "I can't count that high". When Jack's labored mental math finally yields a number greater than 100, everyone realizes that they are going to have a very busy serial killer to contend with.
The film relinquishes some of its mystery by making it clear from the start that Jack is not the killer. In fact, we see the killer (Michael Rodrick) eyeing Jack's wife and adding her to his mental rolodex of ladies to slay. By trading in any suspense surrounding 'who?', we get an amplified curiosity regarding 'how?' and 'why?'. Unfortunately the answers to these questions are too contrived and artificially shocking to have a truly visceral impact. It also doesn't help that the film tips its hand at the half-way point by giving up a crucial bit of evidence that will allow any eagle-eyed viewer to fill in most of the blanks.
Setting aside the killer's motive for a moment, the film seems hell-bent on shoving Se7en-styled darkness and despair down our throats by focusing on the lurid details of his twisted M.O. You see, he doesn't just kill Jack's ladies. He also defiles them and places articles of jewelry in parts of their body where they just don't belong. Once you get past the gruesome nature of the act, it quickly becomes apparent that the recycled atmosphere and lackluster plotting will prevent this from being anything more than a cut-rate Fincher knock-off.
This brings me back to the motive for the killings. Anyone can catalog cruelty and get me to blink. This isn't challenging or terribly exciting. I'm more intrigued by the machinations of the disturbed mind that can justify these actions. This is where the film puts forth its sole original idea. Without spoiling the killer's driving force, let me just say that the implications of his actions and the explanation of his past have the capacity for gut-churning dramatic effect. Unfortunately, Jack's exaggerated lothario status gives us such an overwhelming list of potential victims that the killer's methods quickly turn far-fetched and implausible. He isn't after just a few key women in Jack's life who we have seen and care about. He is after every lady that Jack has ever had a passing interest in. You can see how this sort of vague threat would become tiresome after a while.
Not helping matters is the fact that the entire cast seems a little sleepy and disconnected. It probably says something that the best performance comes from Slater in what amounts to an extended cameo. He is lewd, crude and most importantly awake. Liotta comes across as a bored supporting cast member of a film that he is in fact headlining. Rhames is given nothing to do, so it's no surprise when that's all he delivers. Rodrick generates a bit of interest as the mysterious killer but not enough to stand out from the blandness that surrounds him. Director Rich Cowan and writer Steve Anderson have taken a kernel of originality and built an utterly forgettable genre exercise around it. Now, I see where the sorrow comes from.