DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: A River Runs Through It

Saturday 25 July 2009

A River Runs Through It

A River Runs Through It (1992) dir. Robert Redford
Starring: Craig Sheffer, Brad Pitt, Tom Skerrit, Brenda Blethyn


The elegiac story of simple midwestern life and fly fishing now takes on greater significance as the coming out party for superstar Brad Pitt. In 1992, it was Redford's third shot at directing, and the acclaimed 1976 story of Norman Maclean which publicized this film. But now we can't watch "A River Runs Through It" without fixating on Pitt's performance and the quick weaning of Pitt from scene stealing character actor in "Thelma & Louise" to leading man personified in this picture.

In prohibition era 1920's, in Missoula Montana, the Maclean family is depicted by the storybook narration of it's lead character Norman Maclean. The son of a Presbyterian preacher (Tom Skerrit) Norman Maclean (Craig Sheffer) grew up fearing God and fearing his father's gloomy shadow of discipline and expectation. When they weren't reading the bible or going to school the boys decompressed with zen-like relaxation fly-fishing in the river gorge . As told to us by Redford's narration and Phillippe Rousselot's lovely photography fly-fishing is a metaphor for the grace, art, and workmanlike discipline it takes to master the sport.

When Norman returns from four years of college, he's a changed man, so is Paul. The once inseparable brothers now have to reconnect and break any social barriers built up between them. Paul has become a charming newspaper man, master storyteller and expert fisherman. Norman has an East coast education, but still all the uncertainty of youth, and his fishing skills have suffered. The burden of the family legacy is carried on Norman’s shoulders, which leaves Paul invisible to the family, thus vulnerable to the vices of the world. It’s a simplified, but archetypal relationship which runs its course in classical, yet satisfying manner.

If anything the film is burdened by Robert Redford’s annoying and intrusive voiceover – overly poetic literary storytelling, removing all the subtext of the performances and Redford’s own direction, as well as an umbrella of period stodginess and over mythologizing. Warming up to this in the first act is the major hump to overcome. The movie escapes the tedium when Norman returns from college. From his point of view the Montana life is foreign compared to his east coast formality, finding Paul a changed man. Their first fly fishing venture is well directed. Brad Pitt’s control of the scene and command of the screen changes the dynamic of the brothers and the actors. Suddenly Norman, as lead protagonist, has layers to his character to examine – his unspoken hatred for his father, his ambivalence to his old way of life, and his uncertainty about his future.

This is where Norman’s jealously of Paul develops. Despite no education his life is uncomplicated - he's loves his home, his fishing and writing for the local paper. Paul's confidence also clouds Norman big brother instinct. Paul’s self destruction is played out maximizing all its tragedy. It’s a shame Pitt’s performance is so charismatic, because Craig Sheffer, the duller of the two actors, is clearly in a different league – yet his character demands this weakness. It's an overshadowed but necessary and unheralded performance.

Like 'Ordinary People' Redford knows how to show us the awkward love hate relationships of families and the powerful unspoken conflict which permeates and grows over time.

A River Runs Through It is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

1 comment :

Jed Gamer said...

This was a great movie back in the day. It's funny to watch now and see how young Brad Pitt looks.