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River Runs Through It, A
"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." Robert Redford puts those words right at the beginning of A River Runs Through It; the director narrates the film in earnest, reverential tones, his text frequently lifted verbatim from the Norman Maclean novella that inspired it. His considerable charisma (even only as a voice-over actor) lends weight to the film; unfortunately, his workmanlike but uninspired direction doesn't. As with much of his directorial filmography, Redford knows how to shoot a pretty picture, but not how to give that picture a pulse.
The film tells the story of Norman (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a child and Craig Sheffer as an adult), the son of a Presbyterian preacher who comes of age in Missoula, Montana, where he is taught the value of religion, hard work, and fly fishing. His younger brother Paul (Vann Gravage as a child; Brad Pitt as an adult) becomes something of a rebel (at least for Montana); he takes up with Indian women, drinks and brawls too much, and gambles to a fault. The film spends its first quarter or so with the boys as they grow up; the bulk of the film takes place after Norman has returned home from college, where he attempts to reconnect with his wandering brother while falling in love with Jessie Burns (Emily Lloyd), a local girl who is the apple of his eye.
In terms of plot, there's not a lot to be found in A River Runs Through It; as with many pieces of short fiction, it is more about mood and character, time and place. But Redford (and screenwriter Richard Friedenberg) lean too heavily on the voice-overs, and they never really manage to find a narrative engine for the film; it's pleasant to watch, but there's never much at stake, even when Paul starts running up debts he can't pay back. We're told that Paul is danger more than we're shown it (except for some cheerful drinking, his transgressions are kept safely off-screen), and even when the story strands should be pulled taut, Redford continues to wander from scene to scene, seemingly with all the time in the world to spare.
The closest thing they can muster up to an antagonist is Jessie's smarmy brother Neal (Stephen Shellen), and the subtlety of his characterization can be best summed up by his first scene, in which he appears with a sweater tied over his shoulders. The same kind of broad brush paints the rest of his screen time, though admittedly, the appearance of this "world-class peckerwood" does give the film a mild (but needed) jolt of energy.
The performances are interesting. Watching the film this long after its release, one can't help but feel that Redford cast it incorrectly; both young actors appear to be playing the wrong role. Sheffer (who is, admittedly, an actor I've never cottoned to) seems too smug for innocent, wide-eyed Norman--there's a darkness to his on-screen nature, and you catch him faking his kindness, stifling his more interesting impulses. Pitt, on the other hand, would seem a perfect fit for golden boy Norman; I've long been an admirer of his work, but he couldn't quite hit the right self-destructive marks (at least, not at this point in his career). Through most of the film, he seems to think he can convey Paul's devil-may-care attitude with a wide but empty grin. Tom Skerritt and Brenda Blethyn are strong but underused as the boys' parents; Emily Lloyd (who, for a brief time in the early 90s, was to be the Next Big Thing) does her best with her bland role, though her American accent is a little shaky. Casting reservations aside, there is some fine acting in the closing sequences, even if the prose of the narration (while admittedly beautiful) is doing too much of the heavy lifting.
When you come right down to it, it's not there's anything exactly wrong with A River Runs Through It. But there's also not a helluva lot to it, either. It is cinematic comfort food--a film of pleasant chuckles and lovely photography and longing for a bygone era, and you can safely watch with your older relatives and not worry about offending anybody. It's beautifully made, right down to the required sepia-toned flashbacks images at the end. But it's a museum piece--there's not much in it that's living and breathing.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The single-disc Blu-ray is presented in the Digibook format (similar to Warner Brothers' JFK and Bonnie and Clyde Blu-rays, or Sony's new Midnight Express disc). The case is similar to a small hardbound book, with the disc held by a clear plastic case on the back cover and a 34-page booklet of production notes, essays, filmographies, interviews, and photographs inside.
A River Runs Through It may have narrative issues, but I had no complaints with the crisp, shiny MPEG-4 AVC transfer. The lush nature scenes, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, are well-preserved here, with vivid green leaves and grass and water so detailed you feel you can reach out and touch it. The 1.85:1 frame has terrific depth and contrast, and black levels are deep and inky. Some of the exterior wide shots are knockouts--an early moment where the boys run through a wide field with mountains in the background is stunning, as is a late shot of the men and their father standing in the sun near the river. However, that high quality doesn't quite hold up in interiors and night time scenes, which are sometimes burdened with heavier-than-average grain (particularly noticeable during a scene between Sheffer and Skerritt in the older man's office). I also detected a touch of edge enhancement, though it was fleeting, and a couple of the tighter close-ups are a bit soft. However, the top-notch presentation of the outdoor scenes more than makes up for these minor infractions.
The 5.1 Dolby True HD 5.1 mix (the film's first surround presentation on DVD--even the 2005 "Deluxe Edition" only sported a 2.0 track) is also quite good, bolstering the quiet, dialogue-driven narrative with subtle but present directional effects. It is mostly a low-key mix, but the flowing water of the river and birds in the nearby trees are a constant presence in the fishing sequences, while the track comes to more noticeable life in a few, flashier scenes. The brothers' early morning canoe ride through the rapids of the river makes vivid use of the entire soundstage, and the Fourth of July fireworks add some spark to the track, while the chatter and music of the speakeasy and the tap-tap-tap of typewriters in Paul's newsroom lend atmosphere to those scenes. There are occasional patches of muffled dialogue (like Blethyn's lines in a telephone scene or Skerritt and Shaffer's emotional but too-low exchange at the end of the film), but most of the center channel audio is clean and audible.
French Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Spanish, and Portuguese mixes are also available, as are English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
Fans of the film will definitely want to upgrade from the lackluster extras of its earlier DVD releases. First up is "Deep Currents: Making A River Runs Through It" (29:59), an impeccably-assembled, detailed account of the production, featuring interviews with Redford and many of the technicians (as well as Sheffer but, notably, not Pitt), illustrated with photos from the shoot. "The Black foot Challenge: Rescuing A River" (15:12) notes that the film was shot away from the Blackfoot River of the book due to pollution, and then details the effort to conserve and restore the river. Kudos to these folks for the good work they're doing, but as featurettes go, this one is an less-than-interesting sidebar.
On the other hand, "Casting A Line: A Beginner's Guide to Fly Fishing" (6:06) is a jaunty, entertaining "lesson" on the essentials of the film's primary activity (and metaphor). Seventeen Deleted Scenes (16:25 total) follow; running an average of less than a minute each, most are more like extra beats and cutaways than real additions (though Skerritt gets a nice moment in the scene about a "disturbing phone call"). One of my favorite bonus features is one of the disc's oddest: "On The Blackfoot River in High-Def" offers "the sights and sounds of Montana's wilderness in full HD with 5.1 surround sound," by letting the viewer choose between four beautiful environment shots, with crystal clear effects in full surround and the option of also playing the film's score by Mark Isham. It's a very cool extra, giving Blu-ray owners a nice demo piece for their systems.
The disc is also BD-Live-enabled, though no updates were yet available at the time of this writing.
As you can tell from the first chunk of this review, I'm a bit lukewarm on A River Runs Through It--it's the classic example of a "well-made film," but it is sorely lacking in spontaneity and fire. But I'd recommend Sony's fine Blu-ray nonetheless; the A/V presentation is top-notch, and most of the extras are well worth a spin.
Jason lives in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.