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ĎA River Runs Through Ití

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 16, 1992


Robert Redford
Brad Pitt;
Craig Sheffer;
Tom Skerritt;
Brenda Blethyn;
Emily Lloyd;
Edie McClurg;
Stephen Shellen
Parental guidance suggested

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Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It" is a loving work of embracing nostalgia for a brighter, cleaner, more upright America. Set in Montana between 1910 and 1935, it describes a life that is grounded in what would now be called traditional family values, with a heavy emphasis on morals, character and love of nature. In its determination to emphasize character and thoughtful content over formulas and facile sensationalism, it's a movie that's proudly out of step with Hollywood trends.

One of the movie's more serious drawbacks is that in his determination to set off in a new direction, Redford has made a film that seems almost anachronistic. In avoiding some of the tawdrier aspects of today's movies, he's also failed to deliver some of the pleasures that audiences have come to expect.

Primarily, this is a matter of pacing and sensibility. Redford has made his third feature with the same diligence he showed in directing "Ordinary People" and "The Milagro Beanfield War" -- but, as in those previous works, his studied sincerity robs the story of some of its natural vitality. It's thoughtful and beautiful, but also a little stodgy.

The Maclean family is an old-fashioned, close-knit clan, headed by a stern but benevolent patriarch who is also a Presbyterian minister (Tom Skerritt). The sustaining link between the Rev. Maclean and his two sons, Norman (Craig Sheffer) and Paul (Brad Pitt), is fly-fishing, which the men practice in the clear streams of Montana as if it were a combination of art form and holy sacrament. The two boys idolize their father, and never more so than when the three are standing thigh-deep in the waters of the Blackfoot River. Fly-fishing is the film's dominating metaphor, representing not only a reverence for nature but also a respect for a dedication to craft that verges on artistry.

"River," based on the autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean, presents a picture of an America that is unsullied by modern complexities, but it's not a sanitized vision. The standards that the Rev. Maclean sets for his sons are demandingly high, and for Norman, measuring up to his father's example of decency is a challenging life's calling. He's the good son, and in the early part of the film, he seems featureless and a little dull, as if his only aim were to live up to everyone's expectations of him.

By contrast, his younger brother, Paul, has worked free of these burdens. Even as a kid, it's clear that the allure of the forbidden is too great for him to follow in his father's footsteps. Paul is good-looking, charismatic and talented (he's well known around town for his newspaper columns), but there's a bit of the Devil in him. Paul takes chances that Norman would never consider. In one early scene, Paul taunts his older brother into risking his life by going over a waterfall in a rowboat, setting the pattern for the rest of their lives.

From that incident, we are made aware that the grown-up Paul may not be as lucky as he was as a boy. As Pitt plays him, Paul is something of a mystery. Though he's constantly in trouble, he's not a bad sort, but the gambling and drinking seem to spring from an anger deep within -- an anger never fully explained. It's possible he's rebelling against his controlling father, but there's no visible tension between them. Nor is there anything beyond the usual sibling bickering between him and Norman, who is obviously his father's favorite.

Part of the problem may lie in Pitt himself. Though he made a strong impression as the drifter in "Thelma & Louise," he seems callow and opaque here; his resources as an actor are simply too limited for him to communicate the psychological subtleties of his character.

This deficiency leaves a hole in the picture that Redford can't cover over. And it causes repercussions throughout the film, particularly in Paul's relationship with Norman, who seems as puzzled by his brother's behavior as we are. It's also perplexing that, despite Paul's difficulties, the family trio remains unaffected, while the point is made that Paul has grown even more proficient in fly-fishing than his father.

This is not a casual point. In "River," those who excel in fly-fishing do so through the grace of God. Ultimately, this is a spiritual movie, and if a man is not in spiritual harmony with himself, his God and nature, then, well, he can pretty much count on hamburger for dinner that night.

"River" is a serious and, at times, moving film, and it deserves serious analysis. Yet serious scrutiny only leaves a deeper confusion. Redford did not make the film with the intention of making heroes; in a sense, it's an elegy for a lost style of living. But the sympathies of the gods appear to be divided here, throwing the moral compass out of whack. While Paul is blessed with the greater artistry (not to mention the bigger fish), it is Norman and his father who are blessed in life. And while this seeming contradiction may be Redford's commentary (he narrates the film) on the perverse humor of fate, more likely it expresses a split within the filmmaker himself.

Paul's incandescence may make him the movie's most compelling character, and even God's favorite, but Redford seems ultimately to side with the less flamboyant characters. Perhaps we're to think that living as intensely as Paul does exacts a high price; that the brighter a candle burns, the faster it goes out. But the candles of the other Maclean men hardly burn at all. Paul has a fervent appetite for life, and beside him, Norman and his father seem fearful and pinched. The elder Macleans don't live as fully or as recklessly as Paul, and, as a result, they can only be spectators to the epiphanies Paul experiences. Yet, it's the slow and steady Norman who endures, and something in Redford wants to praise that, to celebrate his gravity. And he does. Though we may fall in love with Paul, it's Norman who's made the movie.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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