Judge Bill Gibron once went on a whitewater rafting excursion, complete with tape deck and cooler filled with "liquid inspiration." Unfortunately, he didn't have the well-intentioned life lessons suggested by this perfectly decent family film.
The only thing rapid about this movie is the white water.
Clay Watkins (Sam Huntington, Superman Returns) is a big-time rebel in a small-time Texas town. His mother (Caroline Goodall, Schindler's List) is a mess, unable to control his confrontational behavior. His grandfather (Barry Corbin, Wargames) is the local sheriff, who spends most of his time bailing Clay out of all kinds of trouble. When he finally goes too far (yet again), Granddad Watkins makes a deal with the boy—take a trip, all by himself, down the 60 miles that make up the regional river, and he'll square away everything with the judicial system. Initially, Clay balks, but after a bit of somber soul searching, he decides to give it a try. Of course he hates it at first, but it's not long before the pierced punk begins enjoying his time in the wilderness. Elsewhere, the sheriff is sniffing out a local drug ring. When a couple of the criminals escape his roadside sting, they carjack a vehicle and head out into the desert. Unbeknownst to the hoods, they've inadvertently kidnapped a local gal (Amanda Brooks, Flightplan) and they soon make a beeline for the same river Clay is canoeing down. Obviously they are headed for a spectacular showdown, with the felons ready to fight for their freedom and our hero hoping to prove his maturing mettle. It will all come down at the River's End, a place where you never quite know what's going to happen.
It starts after only 15 minutes. You can see it written all across the screen. It's as if screenwriter Glen Stephens and director William Katt (yes, The Greatest American Hero himself) used the knotty notion as part of the very celluloid fabric they're working with. Call it inherent nobility or purposeful decency, but River's End is overloaded with good intentions. You know the kind of motives I mean. This is a film just busting at the seams with wholesome happenstance and life lessons via character-building basics. In the persona of sage Sheriff "Buster" Watkins and the stilted swagger of his minor metrosexual grandson Clay, we are supposed to see the daily dichotomy that exists out in the real world - hard-working honor vs. IPod-inspired unembellished laziness. The combination, in conjunction with lots of your standard classroom bullying and harried home life, leads to the discovery of inner strength and the overcoming of obstacles. All that's missing is the "Jesus is Lord" pronouncement and some choir singing "Amazing Grace." Thankfully, River's End avoids the "Go with God" designs and instead tries to make human beings responsible for their own unnecessary rebelliousness. By learning the messages that a body of water can teach you and helping to save a kidnapped girl along the way, you can reverse decades of pro-punk swagger and bad experiments with hair gel.
You see, after losing his father in a freak accident, Clay could care less what the rest of the world thinks of him—which is obvious, since he dresses like a reject from the road company of Rent in the middle of the conservative conformity known as Texas. Luckily, he has a relative on the police force, which keeps the redneck brethren from beating the every loving emo out of this brat. After a run in with a mailbox (a federal offense!!!), Clay is given a six-pack—of self-made self-help cassettes (Buck fancies himself a Tony Robbins in tight chaps) and sent on a stereotypical rite of passage. We are then allowed to watch every archetypal moment of this quest for inner and outer survival. Had Stephens stuck with this basic idea, let Clay run into himself and his own preconceived phobias about water, the wilderness, and the wildlife he will encounter, we might have something meaningful. In fact, you could actually craft something more like Cast Away than a dopey, derivative Deliverance. But our author couldn't leave well enough alone, so a sloppy subplot involving drug dealers, a botched dragnet, and an accidental ingénue snatching turns the last act of River's End into an awkward action film.
That's right, while he's trying to get in touch with his tender side and learning the path to personability from a pre-recorded Grandpa, Clay must battle the brazen criminal element, remember some vital information he learned in Clint Howard's science class (that's right, Gentle Ben's buddy is teaching high school—and LOVING IT!), and realize that part of being a man is kicking some bad-guy butt once in a while. There are a few more unfettered plot points tossed around, too—Clay purposely loses the big basketball game, he's accused of being in on the drug deal and kidnapping as well, and he hates both the water and snakes (especially if said vipers are placed in his pants by a bunch of high-school himbos)—but for the most part, this is a trip down a lazy river without a great deal of dramatic punch. Because of the family film approach taken by Stephens and Katt (calling the shots behind the camera for only the second time in his long career), we know the good guys are going to win. Since the hoods are hopelessly inept at anything remotely resembling camping skills, they practically pick themselves off, one by one.
But that's beside River's End's rather routine point. Basically, this movie argues that if you stop being an alt-rock reaming wuss, man up and take responsibility for your own shortcomings, and stick a scorpion or two down a dope peddler's boot, you'll wind up with the hottest chick on campus and a ball sack overflowing with freshly minted machismo. You'll forgive your late, lamented Dad, appreciate your overburdened single mother, and finally understand the lure of a canoe and a cooler filled with authentic longhorn beef jerky. It has to be said that River's End is not a bad movie. It delivers its many wholesome messages with directness and emotional honesty. There is no hidden agenda here and only one unintentional laugh-out-loud moment (when Corbin's recorded comments do an aquatic version of Forrest Gump's "box of chocolates" metaphor). In essence, this is the kind of film you'd find at a youth conference, a guy standing near the screen holding up your free copy of The Book of Mormon after the final credits roll. It's perfect summer camp fodder - with minor cursing, uncomplicated narrative, and solid discussion group-oriented significance. If you're looking for fast-paced stunt work or edge of your seat thrills, this is not the film for you. If you don't mind a slower speed and a little bit of personal preaching, you'll dig this decent effort.
Presented by Pumpjack Entertainment (Guys, you've got to work on that corporate name, seriously) in a professional DVD package, River's End looks mighty good. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean and clear, and the colors are balanced flawlessly. There is even a bit of artistic elegance near the end, when Clay and his new gal pal row majestically into a sun-dappled dam. It sounds corny, but it actually looks kind of cool. Similarly, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is masterfully handled. The dialogue is always discernible and the outdoor ambience captured sets a certain sonic mood.
As for added content, Pumpjack provides a full-length audio commentary featuring Katt, Stephens, and lead actor Sam "Clay" Huntington. Showing that the movie's an obvious labor of love for all involved, the conversation walks us through the various facets of the production—from inspiration to final cut, and all the pitfalls in between. In addition, we are treated to a trailer for the film, an audio introduction by Stephens, and a collection of behind-the-scenes snapshots. All in all, it's a fine digital offering.
If you are one of those people who laments the lack of cinematic choices for the whole family—from wee ones to the elderly, smug adolescents to needing-a-bit-of-a-break adults, River's End will service your unexceptional entertainment needs. It's rather routine, but acquits itself by never growing boring while covering those basics.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Pumpjack Entertainment
• Full-Length Audio Commentary with Director William Katt, Screenwriter Glen Stephens, and actor Sam Huntington
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