Universal // 1984 // 124 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // August 23rd, 2007
This 1984 Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek drama resurfaces to make a splash onto high definition. Will this slick new presentation soak up your hard-earned money or is this HD DVD all wet? And I'm done.
Our story follows the trials and tribulations of hard-working farmer couple Tom and Mae Garvey (Gibson and Spacek) and their unending quest to preserve their family farm and simple, rewarding way of life. Well, I guess it's rewarding. To me it looks nigh-unbearable, but then again I live in the Northeast where the biggest threats to our livelihood are Massachusetts drivers.
Flood waters have ravaged the Garvey homestead, affecting the year's crops. Meanwhile, industrialist John Wade (Scott Glenn) is pressuring the family to sell so he can clear the way for a huge dam. With money near non-existent and the looming threat of poverty above him, Tom scrapes for any kind of work he can find and Mae picks up the slack in the fields. Ultimately, Tom and his farmer pals will be forced to make a stand for their properties, even as the neighboring river threatens to wash everything out once more.
It sucks being a farmer. That's the message I took away from this Mark Rydell-directed, Academy Award-nominated slice of human drama. Or at least, it's a lot tougher and dirtier than my old Fisher Price play-sets would have me believe. If the de-mystifying of the picturesque American farmer was what Rydell and company set out do, then I am officially de-mystified.
The River is a gritty, realistic look at one family's desperate struggle to make ends meet. If it sounds like a downer, it's because it is. But, hey, not all movies can be crowd-pleasers and if you're in the mood to be confronted with the raw muck of good, salt-of-the-earth folks eking out an existence look no further than this.
For my tastes, though, I didn't get too much out of the film. I can objectively say that the performances were strong (specifically, Spacek who was nominated for an Oscar), the cinematography impressive and the story suitably "real." But two hours worth of The River yielded little entertainment. For one, the conditions depicted in the film were so unbelievably rotten, it felt like I was watching a post-apocalyptic saga instead of a drama set in the Midwest (the presence of a young Mel Gibson probably had something to do with that). When Tom Garvey sojourns to the city to get some much-needed work as a scab in a steel mill, the picturesque farmland turns into a ravaged cityscape in which a nuke may or may not have gone off. This section of the film was interesting, and Rydell gets his camera right into the grime of the work -- so much so you'll be wiping pretend sweat from your brow -- but it seemed tacked on and interrupted the flow of the major conflict of the film, between Wade and Garvey. Yes, an argument could be made that the true conflict was the Garvey family versus elements beyond their control, but Wade was introduced early on as the main force to be reckoned with and to pull away from his storyline for such a large chunk of the film was distracting. Worse, when this particular conflict finally reaches its culmination, the action is hugely anticlimactic, and -- dare I say it -- corny.
I can appreciate Rydell's vision and his execution is noteworthy, but in the end, The River did little to intrigue me. But the movie is quality and if the subject matter is of interest to you, I'd recommend checking it out.
Sweetening the deal is the film's new HD transfer. For a 20-plus year-old film, The River looks great in HD. Universal noticeably refined the picture quality. Colors are especially potent during the outdoor scenes -- the green of the John Deere tractor, the gold of the corn, even the dank browns of the mud looks great. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus surround track is okay, though this isn't a move to utilize an aggressive mix. Unfortunately, there are no extras.
The River strikes me as a booster film for farm subsidies. And, seriously, Mel Gibson's character should have just sold his damn farm and moved to Utica, N.Y. or something.
Get back in the field, boy.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (widescreen)
* Dolby Digital Plus 6.0 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13