THE RIVER," with Sissy Spacek and Mel Gibson, like "Country" before it, echoes with the issues of the Mondale campaign -- the destruction of the small farmer, hunger amid plenty, unemployment and the reaffirmation of unionism. It's about aggressively clinging to a losing way of life, a sentimentalization of the farmer's plight.
"The River" is the latest and most laborious of three films in which a farm family fends off foreclosure with the help of God, country and Crisco. All three, especially the Depression-era "Places in the Heart," view rugged individualism as the birthright of the small American farmer. Parallels between "The River" and "Country" are so strong that Universal pulled the film from its schedule last fall in hopes of reaping a winter harvest at the box office.
"The River" differs mainly in that there are floods instead of tornadoes. It focuses on Gibson as a stubborn stoic who raises corn on a floodplain in eastern Tennessee. High water, agribusiness and the local bank almost wipe him out, but with the help of his hardy wife Mae and his two hardy kids, he scrapes by. Life is cruel, but pastoral.
Gibson, the thinking man's Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Spacek, a rawboned Raggedy Ann, are nearly silent partners in this largely visual parable. Despite their good looks and best efforts, the film falters. Costar Scott Glenn weakens it with his lame villainy as an evil agribusinessman who's after not only Gibson's farm, but his wife.
The director Mark Rydell ("On Golden Pond") makes matters worse with his pensive approach, surely the worst way through a plodding, stodgy screenplay. The story questions the obvious -- what will the small farmer do? -- then offers overworked, simplistic solutions to the powerless. It urges brotherhood when pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is in vogue.
Becky Jo Lynch, as the delightful little farmer's daughter, has the last line -- "I bet we'll get a million bucks for all this corn." The producers probably thought so too, but how much corn can America take? You've got to wonder why the lot of them didn't just make one movie and call it "Places in the Country by the River." THE RIVER -- At area theaters.