At long last, a movie about plumbing. In Mark Rydell's "The River," water rushes, swirls, splats and gurgles over, upon and around windows, rocks, jerry-built dams and tar-paper roofs, tearing branches from trees and killing cows in its stormy rage.

That ol' man river is something of a sadist, but he's not the only one conspiring against hard-working Tom Garvey (Mel Gibson) and his wife Mae (Sissy Spacek), rugged individualists trying to preserve their family farm. There's also that dadburn machinery: a bulldozer breaks down and topples on poor Tom; his old John Deere tractor blows a gasket; and Mae gets her arm caught in the drive chain of a seeding rig.

Then there's the economy, which has driven land prices down so that Tom now owes more on the farm than it's worth. And the evil banker, who won't extend the loans. Like the corrupt state senator, the banker's in cahoots with Big Agribusiness, personified by Joe Wade (Scott Glenn). Wade doesn't want just to build a dam that would flood Garvey's farm (and provide irrigation for his own) -- he wants to take Tom's wife, too.

"The River" is constructed with the rigor of a doctoral dissertation, with each incident designed to ram home its specious brand of reactionary populism. Big business, cities, technology and corrupt government crush what's truly valuable in American life -- the individual farmer -- and the solution is for the little people to band together. Tom takes a job as a welder so he can pay his Sears bill; of course, he's a "scab," hired in the middle of a mill strike, so that "The River" can illustrate how the Big People pit the Little People against each other. These scenes of loud, sooty factory life are crosscut with inspirational prospects of the farm, photographed in deep, soft-focus greens and blues by Vilmos Zsigmond, as crickets chirp on the score.

That's the confusion at the heart of "The River" -- it dramatizes the plight of the small farmer, but when it gets down to saying exactly why the small farmer is important, the values it enshrines are yuppie values: the Ansel Adams beauty of unadorned nature, the "authenticity" of homemade bread and jam, print dresses out of the Ralph Lauren catalogue, and so forth. Wade's dam wouldn't only provide water for his own land, but would also, as the movie admits, generate electricity for the whole county, and provide hundreds of jobs. Stacked against this are the interests of the eight or nine farmers who live in the valley, who want to live where their "people are buried" and scarf down homemade preserves. Who's the hero?

Rydell shoots the movie as if it had been commissioned by the Department of Agriculture. His scenes have such brute intentionality, they never come to life -- they're instant, airless cliche's. And who can believe that Mel Gibson is a down-and-out farmer? He looks terrific, with his clear blue eyes boring straight into the back row, and his face without a line in it -- American Gothic goes GQ. When Spacek remarks on what a great haircut she's given him, it's a hoot -- here's the kind of haircut you can't get for less than $75 and anywhere but Rodeo Drive. And while Gibson can be an effective icon (as in the "Mad Max" series), he's the most limited of actors. Rebuffed at the bank, he loosens his tie and cranes his neck like Rodney Dangerfield. Farmers don't get no respect.

Spacek brings her usual sensitivity and intelligence to a role that's far from the center of the movie. And Glenn does some nice things with the nasty -- he waves hello with a flat palm, as his elbow stays tucked into his side, and he has a slope-shouldered, shlumpy walk, as if the kid everyone hated in grade school has become the grown-up everyone still hates. But such strokes can't humanize a role that, like the rest of "The River," seems to have been written with a jackhammer. Due for release last fall, the movie was held to avoid competing with "Places in the Heart" and "Country," which it resembles more than a little (complete with "No Sale!" farmer's auction and confrontation with the farmer's bank). According to Hollywood rumor, Jessica Lange read the script for "The River" before making "Country"; the dying cow in "The River" is named "Jessica."