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Thursday
May 24 2018

Months of Meryl: The River Wild (1994)

JohnandMattheware watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep.

#21 —Gail Hartman,a rafting expert whose distracted husband and disgruntled son will soon turn out to be the least of her problems…

MATTHEW:The River Wildopens with the rather surprising sight of Meryl Streep rowing a kayak with steely determination and brisk athletic prowess down the lengthy expanse of the Charles River.Watching Curtis Hanson's waterborne caper for the first time in 2018,I asked myself with stunned curiosity the same question that surely rolled through the minds of ‘90s audiences upon the film's release: How exactly did she get here?The River Wildis a light rip-roarer that could have easily ended up as little more than a forgettable IMDB entry in the filmography of Sigourney Weaver or Geena Davis or Linda Hamilton were it not for someone's out-of-the-box idea to transform one of our most famously worldly and erudite thespians into a hard-bodied,take-charge action heroine...

Streep's participation here almost seems to willingly solicit the accusations of miscasting that have shadowed the actress throughout her entire career,sometimes fairly although oftentimes not.But her involvement also lends the film a level of prominence and critical consideration that a star more accustomed to blockbuster productions might not have necessarily provided.Streep indeed carries over an undeniable cachet to this unsubtle studio suspenser,but she also,much more importantly,supplies an interestingly atypical approach to the central role of Gail Hartman,a Boston-dwelling wife,mother,and teacher to the deaf who isalsoa recognized rafting specialist.This talent will prove especially handy when her son's birthday trip down Idaho's Salmon River is hijacked by a pair of dastardly bandits (Kevin Bacon and John C.Reilly),who intend to make their escape from a recent robbery by having Gail transport them through "the Gauntlet,"a series of treacherous rapids that have killed and paralyzed past rafters and are consequently forbidden to the public.

Is Streep miscast inThe River Wild?Not exactly,although one of the aforementioned actresses — or,even better,Angela Bassett,an equally accomplished but far less likely alternative withimpendingass-kicking,bodyguarding credentials — might have nailed the defining intensity of this genre archetype with a formidability that just doesn't seem to interest Streep.But,then again,you don't cast Meryl Streep to merely fill in a template,and what the actress ultimately brings to this particular movie are traits we rarely see applied to parts and projects of this variety.From moment to moment,Streep is a sprightly and perceptive presence perpetually open to spontaneity,nicely offsetting her character's choppy,exposition-laden exchanges with loved ones and strangers alike.She colors outside the lines of the script,which was rewritten without credit by famous script doctor and noted Streep pal Carrie Fisher.Streep also dares to inject insouciant energy and emotional urgency into this already high-stakes river-run.

In its best moments,The River Wildcomes alive,very briefly,as a portrait of an average middle-aged woman,saddled with a chirpy son (Joseph Mazzello) and a fuddy-duddy,work-addicted husband (David Strathairn),as she melancholically takes stock of the discouraging state of her life.Sure,the event that precipitate these revelations is a death-dealing river voyage instigated by a psycho-bandit who looks great with his shirt off,but Streep ably conveys this deeply personal reckoning all the same,often without the aid of dialogue.When Bacon's Wade,who has brazenly flirted with Streep's reciprocative Gail from his very first scene,teases her with the suggestion of an independent life and its possibilities for adventure,Streep communicates her character's intense unsettlement with a subtly anxious shift of the eyes,averting Bacon's own coolly penetrating stare.She's also conveying guilty curiosity of wondering what lies beyond her firm familial ties.The rest of the film rarely affords Streep equal moments for emotional truth and vulnerability,but there are still a few pleasures to be found along the way.Most of the film's best moments are a result of Streep's introspective inclinations,which may not make her a most memorable action heroine,but at least make her a distinctive one.Then again,Streep works up a mighty mettle,not least of all when goading Bacon to do his worst,her voice and vision full of unveiled disdain,right at the juncture when Wade's lewd fixation on Gail could easily turn violent.What stands out for you about Streep's venture into troubled waters?

JOHN: Isn't it odd how Streep's presence alone makes you reassess your understanding of a fundamentally conventional film?You're thinking not only about how Streep "fits"into the genre,what she brings to it,where it factors into her filmography,but also about what she saw inThe River Wild.Why did she accept this blockbuster role?It's precisely because we'renotwatching a more unfettered presence like a Linda Hamilton,flex her biceps and paddle for her life,thatThe River Wildbecomes a film about an "ordinary"mother and wife who summons immense strength and courage in increasingly arduous circumstances.Despite its contrivances,the film's adventures and mishaps feel plausibly grounded in reality,its flashy set-pieces spun out from the story rather than spectacles amped up by a plot.

Of course,this sense of the real is almost entirely care of Streep's performance,a compendium of thoughtful and exciting choices that,although unsurprising in the context of her career,play with the possibilities of the film's amusement park-ride aesthetic.I wouldn't say that Streep is miscast,but rather that her casting is the point: the film deliberately presents an action heroine as active in thought as she is inaction.In a lovelyNew York Timesprofile,Streep noted,"Here was a woman in a sort of non-victim heroic part,a mother,someone I could relate to,who was really closer to me maybe than other things I've done."As Gail Hartman,Streep is spry,toned,and unwound,rocking tank tops and Tevas,and generally using her body in ways that her other films rarely require.It's thrilling to watch Streep strategize and problem-solve,testing her verve against vicious yet moronic criminals.Aside from the impressive river-rafting,half of which was actually done by Streep,there are immense pleasures in watching her spar with Bacon,fluctuating between mockery and disdain,laughing at his ineptitude only to then vow with a bitter resolve that shewillkill him.And as preposterous and improbable as that may be given the circumstances and Gail's genial backstory,you believe her.

Equally thrilling is Streep's "return"to the top of the box-office in a bonafide Hollywood hit.(The film opened in first place in its September ‘94 debut.) Adjusted for inflation,it remains one of the top-grossing films of Streep's career,having earned more thanSilkwood,Postcards from the Edge,and evenSophie's Choice.And as much as I hate to indulge the narrative that Streep's film career was in any sort of dire hiatus or jeopardy during the early ‘90s,Streep's success withThe River Wildcertainly assured producers that the actress could indeed carry an expensive movie and get butts in seats,while perhaps reassuring gatekeepers of both her versatility and commercial appeal.As Bernard Weintraub explained,in his aforementioned Timesprofile,"studio executives and film makers are examining Streep's skills in a different light: sure she's a great actress,sure she does accents,but maybe she'll open a movie now,maybe the audience will warm to her,maybe the hits will finally resume."

MATTHEW: Weintraub's words are fairly prescient.As next week's film will show,one such touching,crowd-pleasing hit would be right around the corner…

previously on Months of Meryl

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Reader Comments (26)

I remember seeing this TWICE in the theater I was entertained so much....Love the thought of Angela Bassett or Geena Davis in this role too.;-)

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

I saw this for the first time randomly on TV I don't know how many lifetimes ago but I remember being fully engrossed with it and how much I enjoyed the ride.Such fun.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Ryan T.-

Me too!Wonderfully entertaining!Kevin Bacon makes a good villain too.

Side note: How awesome was Curtis Hanson's choices in material?

The Hand that Rocks the Cradle
The River Wild
8 Mile
LA Confidential
In Her Shoes

Each project was so different and didn't fall into a certain genre...Wish more directors today would choose projects like he did.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

I found Meryl really sexy in this and not in a tempting but natural way.Just like Bridges.Also the look in her eyes when she says "I'm going to kill you,Wade"gives me chills everytime.
And Kevin Bacon was a great villain.
Of course everything was forseeable,but I enjoy the ride any time I watch it.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

I liked this movie a lot.It's very standard but well done and engrossing.I guess she has one special effects film and one action hero movie on her resume.In addition to Strathairn,Kevin Bacon and John C.Reilly are also very good in the cast.I recall that even Pauline Kael told people it was a great movie for kids (it's too bad Pauline could not continue to write about Streep later in her career;my hunch is she would have been more supportive).I also believe this film's success led to Streep getting the role in Bridges of Madison County,over Jessica Lange,Sonia Braga,and other contenders.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

Love this performance and the character of Gail.Streep brings so much to the role and I would love to see another "Gail"creation in her future.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I also believe this film's success led to Streep getting the role in Bridges of Madison County,over Jessica Lange,Sonia Braga,and other contenders.

A missed opportunity by Eastwood choosing Streep over Sonia Braga.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

And why does your fantasy crystal ball tell you this?Eastwood chose who he wanted and the film was a success.Why do you think you know best?So annoying.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Chastain

Streep is fun but the film is otherwise painfully devoid of panache.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

I have a soft spot for this film for 2 reasons.
I loved seeing Streep do something so physical,showing off her athletic ability.In an interview,she mentions that she chose this film because she wanted to do something her daughters would like to see.Whitewater rafting qualified as cool.
As usual she turned out to be right.This was the first Meryl Streep film I took my nieces to see,and they loved the rafting and thought that blonde actress who did some of her own stunts was pretty good too.They went on to enjoy Streep in other subsequent films.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

3rtful no one but no one could have been Francesca like Streep.

Sigourney turned down this role to do Death and the Maiden mainly cos she thought she was being typecast and she desperately wanted that Oscar she lost in 88.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Streep was and is the most perfect choice for Bridges...does not get much better.

I loved her in this film also.A straight adventure movie but she brought some depth to her character.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

I do believe although I think it's her best ever performance Bridges sent her back into Oscar prestige territory until Adaptation and then TDWP.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

The River Wild is a totally under-rated film.I was riveted to the screen for the entire movie.Physical and outdoorsy Meryl was nice change.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I always thought "Jessica Chastain' was a lame /3rtful mock-account.I stand corrected.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterLana

Streep was completely believable in the role.Very happy she has this film in her resume.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

One of my favourite movies from my teen years - I'm shocked at how long ago this was released.It was Meryl that sold this movie for me and is the reason I saw it.At the time,and I still feel this way,she is the reason to watch and believe this film.

Oh - she was in a scull at the beginning,not a kayak.;-)

May 24,2018 | Unregistered Commenterfilmboymichael

That is an underrated film.Makes me wonder why no one has made an action franchise film for Meryl Streep.Hell,why doesn't she become part of theFast & Furiousfranchise?She can play Paul Walker's mom.She and Helen Mirren kicking some ass with Vin Diesel and Jason Statham.

That is $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

May 24,2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

You ask yourself why a member (3rtful) with so much hatred towards Meryl always lurking in Meryl-related posts?Why not spend your time commenting positively on someone else that you admire?

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterManlo

Meryl got a SAG and a Globe Drama nomination for this performance.

I missed it at the time but must get round to seeing this someday.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Great new direction in the feel of this column.Loving it!A couple of important points about Streep's early-90s "hiatus"are important to consider,however.It was a narrative that Streep elucidated for those critics and interviewees who cared to ask at the time,and was indelibly linked to a change in her management and a seminal speech she gave to the Screen Actors Guild (about roles for women),and therefore warrants coverage in any analysis of her career that wants to be taken seriously.Streep was able to negotiate key roles and green-light projects after winning two Oscars,亚博主页right up to the pre-production of the adaptation of Evita that was to have been helmed by Oliver Stone in 1989...then,she gambled on her box office bankability,and lost.Evita's producers were struggling with various delays about shooting on location in Argentina when she triggered a "pay-or-play"contractual clause,hoping filming would relocate to Spain.But the production fell over.Streep segued into Postcards From The Edge,but the Evita mis-fire started a pattern for her that lasted several years.During the hiatus (which wasn't a work vacuum,but a stint out of Oscar validation),she was dogged by rumours and questions about her pay,bankability and age,but most visibly,she missed out on some killer Oscar-bait roles because she was not working to her own timetable.She was unavailable for Thelma and Louise due to pregnancy (so she green-lit Death Becomes Her);she was cast in The Remains of the Day but someone signing the cheques objected to Mike Nichols' casting of her and Jeremy Irons (so she jumped,with Irons,into The House of the Spirits,and dumped her long-time agent when he failed to tell her in person);and despite chasing the role of Joy Gresham in Shadowlands,she couldn't get a meeting with director Richard Attenborough (and so agreed to ride The River Wild).Streep's control didn't reset until Clint Eastwood got Carrie Fisher's number and called to ask Meryl to cross The Bridges of Madison County,trouncing a swag of actresses to a prize of a role.There was another blip,when the Glenn Close-Meryl Streep planned 'Elizabeth and Mary' project couldn't raise funds fast enough,and Streep jumped to One True Thing.When you're the pre-eminent screen actress of your generation,they've got to pay-or-play if they want you,but Streep's "wilderness years"(as I call them) were about missed roles,in a career that seemed to be above that type of struggle.Other commenters make some of the best points about The River Wild.It's a genre film,but so what?Curtis Hanson's career is as varied in genres as Streep's,and playing a villain was also a new move for Kevin Bacon,which all signals that the creatives involved were aiming to make a piece of quality entertainment.People who succeed at this level never sit around twiddling their thumbs.Streep has always said she likes to work and doesn't do well when she's not transforming on screen.

May 24,2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Burge

Great post and comments.Yes,Streep had to navigate the rough waters of being in her 40's!I do think she smashed through the glass ceiling for women since she persevered and then became an even bigger star in her 50's.Unusual.Kevin Huvane has been a great partner for her,and she still speaks highly of the late great Sam Cohn.

May 25,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSister Rona Barrett

Evita
Thelma & Louise
The Remains of the Day
Shadowlands

I'm so glad she lost these roles.I'm not mean,I'm just an actressexual.

May 25,2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Bridges: Put Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani in a mixer and what do you get?: Meryl in Bridges.

May 26,2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

I kno she alr has 221 noms,but Meryl deserves a nom for The River Wild.She was nom for SAG n GG n must have barely missed the cut at Oscars.亚博主页She must hav been at the 6th place.

May 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Wow...Interesting insights @Michael Burge - how strange,can not for the world see anyone else then Thompson in "Remains of The Day"

June 2,2018 | Unregistered CommenterMartin

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