The River Wild

Meryl in peril, field & streep. The jokes keep flooding in about the two-time Oscar winner getting physical as a river guide who takes on psychos and Class V rapids to save her menfolk. It does sound nutso, like Woody Allen doing heavy lifting. The buzz on The River Wild runs to typical Hollywood sniper fire about a faded star slumming with a low-rent Deliverance to dredge up a hit after a string of losers (The House of the Spirits, Death Becomes Her, She-Devil).

Streep gets the last laugh. Her River may not be high art, but it is the perfect high old time for audiences in the mood to be tossed into the spin cycle for a pulse-pounding thrill ride. Engineered for maximum suspense and minimal sadism by director Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), the movie might also be called The Meryl Streep Workout. It's a kick to watch this controlled actress let down her hair, tone up her muscles and go for the burn. Streep is strong, sassy and looser than she has ever been onscreen. And like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, she doesn't stoop to conquer. There's not a guy she can't out-row and outwit.

Streep plays Gail Hartman, an expert guide who reluctantly left the river to marry Tom (David Strathairn), an architect, and make a home in Boston with Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), their 10-year-old son. Now Tom's ambition and neglect are putting a strain on the marriage, especially when he begs off the family rafting trip Gail has organized. Even after Tom reconsiders, the cluck brings his work along. Resentment festers as the Hartmans shove off on a journey that may sever the family for keeps or become its deliverance from dysfunction.

e plot is what it sounds like: TV-movie formula. Denis O'Neil adapted the script from an article he wrote in Fly, Rod and Reel. But Streep and a blissfully overqualified cast play it like it means something. Mazzello, the fine child actor from Jurassic Park and Shadowlands, dodges brat showboating. And Strathairn (The Firm, Sneakers) is extraordinary, blowing the dust off'a workaholic cliché to reveal the astute, ardently responsive man Gail thought she had married. It's a breakthrough star performance from this superb character actor best known for a series of resonant John Sayles films, most notably Passion Fish and Eight Men Out.

vin Bacon (JFK, A Few Good Men) is also in top form, blending mirth and malice as Wade, a stranger who becomes the catalyst for the film's fattest scares. Wade and his partner, Terry (the excellent John C. Reilly), need Gail's river savvy to pull off a scheme that could leave them rich and the Hartmans history. Obviously, the boys have chosen to fool with the wrong mother. Just as obviously, you will be ahead of the plot every step of the trip. The actors make you care anyway, and Hanson shows devilish skill in rattling nerves as Streep crashes through those rushing rapids.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Elswitt (Bad Influence) on waters in Oregon and Montana, River is something to see. You'll also swear you can feel it, thanks to the whiplash editing of Joe Hutshing (JFK) and David Brenner (Heaven and Earth) and the jangling score by Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen). Streep may be a long way from Sophie's Choice, but Proud Meryl looks to be having the time of her life rolling on the river.

From The Archives Issue 86: July 8, 1971