Wednesday, May 25, 2016


(October 1992, U.S.)

I'd like to begin by actually telling you about the circumstances under which I saw A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT because it's what I think about most when recalling this film. It was a cold Saturday in December 1992 and I was in Westhampton Beach, Long Island checking on the family beach house with a friend of mine who also happened to be an ex-girlfriend from college. Because we were in a beach town during the off-season, everything around us was very quiet. Having no further tasks or plans after checking the house, we decided to catch the movie at the local neighborhood theater, where it was still going strong after being in release for two months already. The peaceful serenity of Robert Redford's film and the way it beautifully captures the waters and the mountains of Montana are exemplary of the picturesque serenity of a simpler life at the turn of the century...

Not exactly a film filled with excitement or speed, but it was just the perfect way to cap off an afternoon in a small, quiet town with a good friend and I'll take that any day of the week.

Narrated by Redford himself, this is a simple coming-of-age tale of two Montana brothers. One of them studious, Norman Maclean (played by Craig Sheffer), of whose family the film and novella are based on, and the other rebellious, Paul Maclean (played by Brad Pitt), both of them sons of the local town Presbyterian minister (played by Tom Skerritt). It's a life where the religion of the church and the passion for fly fishing are practically one and the same and we're witnesses to how fishing impacts their lives. As the boys grow into manhood, they both evolve into their own lives, loves and passions, while still never losing their love for fishing. Norman goes off to college to study and teach literature, while Paul remains at home to become a journalist for the local newspaper. Being the rebellious one who's never afraid of a confrontation, Paul finds it easy (if not fun) to stand up to issues of the era, including racism against the American Indian and the violent trouble that Prohibition, illegal liquor and gambling bring. It's impossible not to watch this film and wonder to ourselves just when and where Paul is going to meet his fate if he doesn't quit pushing his luck with certain people (were told near the end of the film that he's been beaten to death). Norman, on the other hand, is always playing it safe and even manages to fall in love with the first beautiful girl he lays his eyes on at the town dance, Jesse Burns (played by Emily Lloyd). Despite the great personality differences between both brothers, it's the art of fishing and the love of home, the land and the waters that always keeps their relationship strong. It's actually one of the rare movies I've seen where two brothers are also best friends (just doesn't happen that often, in my opinion). The film ends beautifully with the last scene of Norman Maclean as an old man, back in the Montana river where he used to fish with his family many years ago. When I first saw the film, I was convinced that the old man was the real Norman Maclean, but the man died in 1990, two years before this film was released, so I'm guessing that was wrong.

While the performances in A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT are strong enough, particularly that of Brad Pitt in a groundbreaking role, the film is more of a visual experience in the heart and beauty of America's landscape and Redford's best directorial work since ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980), I think. One can't help but feel enthralled by the power of the rivers and the life in it and around it. We're meant to bring ourselves closer to nature and her possibilities while, perhaps, reaching down into our own souls to find meaning with the visuals we witness. It's just fishing, yes, but it's the pure simplicity of life's pleasures that take us to another place in our minds and our hearts. Just as Redford narrates as the last line of the film, we are haunted by waters.

By the way, when you watch the film, keep your eye on a ten year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young Norman Maclean.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Older Norman Maclean (narrating): "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters."

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