I miss the ‘90s. I miss Super Nintendo, and my best friend Brandon, and my second grade teacher Mrs. Uribe. I also miss that magical period when action blockbusters relied not on special effects but on actual suspense, and performances that delivered. Christopher Nolan understands that audiences are hungry for big-budget movies that don’t just shove CGI down your throat every second for two hours. 1994 was an excellent year for action movies, with Speed and True Lies making big impressions, and The River Wild, released that September, was one of the most exciting releases of all—and not just because visual effects don’t drive the film. The film has a solid story, characters that make sense, and a breathless climax. It also remains the one and only action movie that Meryl ever made.
Death Becomes Her had been Meryl’s most surprising and daring film yet, but The River Wild was an even more unlikely choice, a project that allowed her to flex both her acting and physical muscles. Following in the footsteps of Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton, Meryl took on an action movie with so much zeal and gusto that it’s a shame she hasn’t returned to the genre since. She commits one hundred percent to every character she takes on, so of course to play Gail Hartman, a skilled rafting expert, she trained for weeks and weeks leading up to production, and got herself in the best physical shape of her adult life.
As the film opens, she is not in the best place. Her husband Tom (David Strathairn) is a workaholic who spends little time with his wife and kids, and so she doesn’t expect him to tag along for the family summer rafting trip. Therefore, Gail is stunned when he shows up to take the journey, and to save their crumbling marriage. The family adventure down the river begins calmly, with impressive views all around, but a trio of men in a separate raft begin impeding on the family’s vacation almost immediately, saying a harmless hello at first but soon asking for more and more help. Soon the trio is mysteriously cut down to two, and the more charismatic of the two—Wade, played by an effectively chilling Kevin Bacon—convinces Gail and her family to let them board their boat. Of course, no movie like this exists without a villain, so Wade and his buddy Terry (John C. Reilly) eventually take the family hostage and demand that Gail bring them past the checkpoint and into the Gauntlet, a dangerous part of the river that has been off-limits to rafters for years.
Although Meryl and Bacon both received Golden Globe nominations for their performances, The River Wild was not well-received by some critics at the time. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film two thumbs down on their show, neither one impressed by what they felt was a lackluster story that had a lack of surprises. While I don’t disagree that the story is a little thin, part of the charm of movies like these—Breakdown, starring Kurt Russell, is another ‘90s movie that comes to mind—is a story stripped to the bare bones to offer the maximum suspense possible. Is The River Wild predictable at times? Does the good guy win and the bad guy lose in the end? This movie isn’t trying to redefine a genre. As entertainment, it works, all the way through.
Curtis Hanson, who had previously directed the cheesy thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, gives The River Wild just the right pacing. If Bacon’s character went off the rails ten minutes in, half the fun would be lost. Anyone who’s ever seen a movie before knows from his introductory scene that he is going to be bad, but the joy of the film’s first half is watching and waiting for when he’ll strike first. This is not an action movie along the lines of Speed by any means, considering that the only true action sequence comes at the end, but the brewing tension that builds and builds is very effective. Take for instance the scene when Gail skinny dips, and discovers Wade watching her from up top the mountain. Or the extremely tense scene where Gail and Tom try to escape from Wade before he finds out. As the viewer, you constantly put yourself in each scenario, wondering what you would do. Do the protagonists always make the right decisions? Not always. But again, that’s the charm!
The River Wild is notable as one of the few movies my mother stayed in her seat all the way through the credits for, and I’m guessing thousands of people did the same thing upon its release, not to find out what the character names were or to see who the second assistant director was, but to find out where the movie was shot. The film’s cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) is stunning, and no matter how wrapped up you get in the narrative, that burning question nags at you constantly: “Where was this filmed?” Most of the movie’s whitewater scenes were filmed on the Kootenai River In Montana, while some additional photography was done on the Rogue River in Oregon. If shot today, the producers would probably cut corners and shoot bits and pieces on a water stage, or—gulp—use special effects water. But what you see in The River Wild is always real, and this element brings a much-needed sense of menace to the proceedings.
The performances are excellent all around. Meryl’s Plenty and A Cry in the Dark co-star Sam Neill was asked to play her husband Tom—he turned the part down—but Strathairn was ultimately the best choice, a perfect mix of nerd and hero. Joseph Mazzello, as Gail’s son Roarke, is not the typical annoying movie kid, and, the same way he did in the previous year’s Jurassic Park, makes for a compelling character all his own. Reilly is the appropriate villainous sidekick, and Bacon, who up until 1994 was more known for playing a hero than a villain, was ingeniously cast against type in this as an unpredictable and threatening bad guy, to great effect. His intense chemistry with Meryl is one of the film’s best qualities.
The role of Gail could have been played by many actresses at the time—Julia Roberts, Geena Davis, and Sharon Stone were likely considered—and Meryl, despite all her Oscar nominations, probably wasn’t an obvious choice. She had appeared in one suspense film before—the lame Still of the Night—but had never taken on a role in an action movie. Whether it was Meryl who pursued the project or Hanson who thought of her for the role, her casting in The River Wild was a masterstroke. It’s always a thrill to see a strong, independent, capable woman on-screen, especially in a big-budget action movie, and Meryl makes what was already a good movie into something even greater. She had shown so many layers on screen before, but never had she shown this tremendous physical side. Meryl did most of her own stunts throughout the movie, but what’s most impressive of all is how she is able to balance humor, terror, and a love for her family with all the strenuous physicality.
The River Wild may be Meryl’s one and only action movie, but at least we have the one—it’s better than nothing. She would have looked silly in the ‘90s appearing in something like Independence Day or Armageddon, but The River Wild was the right choice for her, in a movie of this magnitude. It’s one that tells an exciting, fast-paced story, without unnecessary special effects, and instead with tension and suspense, and that awesome finale that takes Gail and Co. down the Gauntlet. She must not have loved shooting this movie, since the following year she returned to drama with The Bridges of Madison County and stayed in the genre for the rest of the decade. Yes, any fun she showed, any big smiles or winks to the camera she displayed on screen between her risk-taking years of 1989 and 1994, were over—at least for a little while.