If you see Judge Paul Pritchard tossing a bag in the river, don't panic. He's just disposing of this DVD.
You Can't Escape The Past.
Time is a funny thing. Had The River Murders been released in the mid-nineties it would surely have proved a decent box office draw, starring, as it does, Ray Liotta, Cristian Slater, and Ving Rhames. However, this is 2011, and the film's direct-to-video status is well deserved, regardless of the past achievements of its cast.
Facts of the Case
When Detective Jack Verdon's (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas) former girlfriends become the target of a serial killer, the detective finds himself the prime suspect. FBI agent Vuckovitch (Christian Slater, True Romance) is brought in to take over the case, while Verdon's Captain (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction) does all he can to prove his detective's innocence.
Suspended while he remains under investigation, Verdon must work outside the law to solve the case, and ensure his wife doesn't become the next victim.
The River Murders is a generic by-the-book thriller, but for two things: firstly it has a cop as the prime suspect in a serial killer case; second, it reveals the identity of the real killer very early on. As such, and with the innocence of Ray Liotta's detective Jack Verdon never in doubt, the film is less of a "whodunit" and more a "why do it." That said, most viewers are likely to categorize The River Murders as a "why bother."
My age dictates that the trio of Ray Liotta, Ving Rhames, and Christian Slater still make for something of a draw, but the truth is that each of these actors has seen their careers follow a downward trajectory for some considerable time, and there's little in The River Murders to suggest that is likely to change anytime soon. Despite having comparatively little screen time, Slater delivers the more memorable performance, clearly enjoying himself playing the grizzled FBI agent. He's full of snide remarks, and has a talent for rubbing people the wrong way. Whether you like him or not, Slater is at least putting some effort in. Liotta and Rhames, on the other hand, phone their performances in. Both men have done much, much better work, and Liotta especially is guilty of going through the motions.
The support cast proves to be a little better, with Michael Rodrick's killer short of sufficient material to make him really interesting. Rodrick plays the role well enough though, and does more than most to impress as he plays his part with a calmness that would prove unsettling if he'd been backed up by a stronger screenplay. Even a rather grisly aspect of his modus operandi—something clearly created to shock, since there can be no other explanation for it—hits with all the impact of wet lettuce.
Rich Cowan's direction is competent in terms of his ability to frame a shot and structure his movie, but crucially he fails to draw what little tension there is from the film's screenplay. Of the multiple murders that take place during the course of the movie we are witness to only a handful, but there is never a sense of peril conveyed. One sequence reveals how the killer uses his charm to coerce his victims into dropping their guard and spending time alone with him. Throughout each of these there is never the even slightest moment where the viewer is pulled in to the horror of the situation. More frustrating, and symptomatic of the problems with the screenplay, are the interactions of the killer and one of the female detectives working the murder case, Jenny Thames (Sarah Ann Schultz). Previously we have seen Thames to be fairly astute, and yet despite the threat of a serial killer, she openly enters into a relationship with a man who she half-suspects to be capable of being the murderer. Are we really supposed to believe all these women are so stupid? In the end it is this manipulating of characters to suit the needs of the plot that condemns it to the bowels of DTV hell.
The film draws to a fittingly lifeless conclusion when the motive behind the killings is finally revealed. In keeping with what has gone before, the "twist" fails to make the impact writer Steve Anderson was clearly reaching for.
The DVD comes complete with two audio commentaries. The first features director Rich Cowan, cinematographer Dan Heigh, and editor Jason A. Payne. The second track has writer Steve Anderson joined by actresses Sarah Ann Schultz and Gisele Fraga, and actor Michel Rodrick. The disc also contains a making-of, which sees various members of the cast and crew really try and sell the film. It's notable that the making of is actually titled, "The Making Of The River Sorrow," after the film's original title.
Technically Sony has put out a quality disc. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is sharp, with a high level of detail. Black levels are rock solid, while colors are natural. The 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive, with clear dialogue throughout.
A solid disc is letdown by a below-average police procedural. As a TV movie, The River Murders would be passable, but expecting people to spend money on it is asking too much.
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