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The River Wild stars Meryl Streep as Gail, a former river rafting tour guide who eagerly plans a water-rafting trip with her husband and son (there is a daughter but she is too young for the trip...overall she serves no purpose in the story.) The husband is a workaholic who has lost the affection of his son. He backs out of the vacation because of his job, before eventually joining his family at the river site, along with their trusty dog Maggie.
They meet Wade (Kevin Bacon) a rugged fellow, with a sketchy friend in Terry (John C. Reilly), looking to go down the river with an assigned rower. After embarking, the family see the two men at different points along the river. Eventually they find the men ashore mysteriously missing their third member. The little clues are not so little and the music cues are not so subtle: these guys are bad. We learn soon enough that Wade has killed their paddler, and that Wade and Terry have recently robbed a Cattle Show and are using the river as an escape route.
Gail and her son are taken captive by Wade and Terry, while the husband has escaped into the woods after attempting to kill Terry. Bloodied and bruised, the husband (David Strathairn) follows his family down-river, along with Maggie the dog. He looks to cut them off after they pass The Gauntlet.
The Gauntlet is the mother of all plot devices, a violent section of the river that has killed people in the past and is too dangerous to raft. But Gail rode it in her youth, and Wade forces Gail to face the challenge once again.
A great sequence follows where Gail, Wade, Terry and her son rip through the rapids of The Gauntlet. They make it out alive! And waiting for them at the end is Gail's husband, who has devised a trap for the crooks. Wade and Terry are defeated. Gail has metaphorically overcome the challenges of being a wife and mother. While her husband "saved their lives," as the now affectionate son says before the closing credits.
The River Wild is packed with the sort of Hollywood clichés one would find lampooned on an episode of South Park. Wade and Terry are suspected villains from the start, eliminating any ambiguity. And the length of the film, under two hours, actually seems too long.
What I suspect makes The River Wild a popular programming choice is the cast: Meryl Streep shows interesting range in one of her only action efforts. (You weren't an "A-lister" in the '90s unless you headlined an action flick). Kevin Bacon's a true baddie. And John C. Reilly is the bad guy sidekick. Reilly is the most fascinating to watch. Considering the sort of late-stage success he has found in Will Ferrell comedies; it's fun to see him in a subdued role.
And of course there's Curtis Hanson, the very talented director who shoots a beautiful film here. The River Wild is visually stunning, and Hanson has an understanding for actors and spacing on film that very few filmmakers possess.
Despite its predictable story, The River Wild harkens back to a time not so long ago where the majesty of American landscape (in this case, mesmerizing wide shots of Montana and Oregon) and solid performances were enough to sell a ticket, without the gloss of CGI. And today, when so many Hollywood productions are outsourced to other countries (due to tax breaks, or lack thereof), one can enjoy The River Wild-if for nothing else-as a summer post card for the American outdoors. And of course, there is John C. Reilly! You can find The River Wild streaming on Netflix this month, and, I will guarantee, your late-night cable listings.