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Saturday, November 26, 2011

THE RIVER WHY -- DVD review by porfle

THE RIVER WHY (2010) is a fishing movie, but it's not aimed at the kind of fishermen who like to toss a cooler full of beer into their bass boat and head out to the lake.  Rather, it's a sweetly boring story about the placid art of fly fishing, the people who love it and live it, and how it represents life.  Not exactly exciting, but then again, if you wanted excitement you wouldn't be watching a movie about fly fishing.

Gus (Zach Gilford) is undergoing a spiritual crisis, because (a) he doesn't like being called by his full name, Augustine, which his dad (William Hurt), a renowned fishing author, insists on doing, and (b) he's fed up with his mom (Kathleen Quinlan) and dad constantly arguing, even though they only argue about fishing and their arguments are about as benign as marital arguments can be.  But all this is still too much for Gus to take, so one night during dinner he erupts in a fit of anger, throws his dad's prized fish trophy into the fireplace, and flees to a secluded cabin on a river in Oregon to fish, fish, fish.  Thus begins Gus' spiritual journey.

This is one of those "go find yourself in the woods" movies with the main character narrating his story in would-be poetic ways that sometimes get a little too on-the-nose; as with Harrison Ford's voiceover in BLADE RUNNER, we could probably do without lines like "As we walked upriver, I felt like we were on a primordial journey to some forgotten ancient home.  The fisherman in me was being unmade."  The often beautiful visuals are enough to help us figure out what's happening in scenes such as this, which is one of the reasons we watch movies adapted from literary works instead of just listening to books-on-tape.

Seeking solitude, Gus naturally runs into a succession of eccentric characters such as wilderness philosopher Titus (Dallas Roberts), whose casually brilliant insight helps define Gus' search for his soul.  Titus is one of those characters whose stilted speech comes off better on the written page and is hard for any actor to play realistically.  Roberts does his best, though.  His erudite refugee from the big city helps Gus see the beauty and poetry in fly fishing and how it relates to life, and even gives him soul-searching pointers over a game of pool in a local bar.  Then, his job done, he disappears from the film. 

William Devane makes a brief appearance as Dutch, a fishing columnist who's so thrilled by some pointers given to him by Gus that he turns the recluse into something of a sought-after local celebrity.  Gus toys with the notion of reconnecting with the human race but rejects it, just in time to run right into the love of his life, a pretty blonde fisherwoman named Eddy (Amber Heard).  Metaphors like "the one that got away", "hard to land", and "reeling her in" define their somewhat tiresomely coy courtship after a series of meet-cutes in a movie where just about every meeting is a meet-cute.  Gus and Titus meet cute, Gus and Dutch meet cute--even in a flashback that shows Gus' mom and dad's first riverside dispute over a prized fish, they meet cute.  Apparently, fly fishing has this effect on people.

While Gus searches for his soul at the end of a fishing pole, director Matthew Leutwyler gives it all a lazy-day feel that viewers will find either relaxing or excruciating, with some acoustic guitar ballads wafting airily through each scene.  Gus finally goes on that "primordial journey" with a fish late in the film, bringing his spiritual quest to just enough of a climax that it registers as a turning point in his life.  Which, at this point, is just about as much excitement as we can stand.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 surround sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  The sole extra is a selection of brief cast and crew interviews.

At first, THE RIVER WHY had such a gentle, homespun vibe that I didn't even want a story to intrude and disturb it.  After awhile, though, I started to feel as though I were fly fishing myself for hours on end without getting a bite.  But I guess that's part of the experience--the act of fishing itself is a slow, contemplative thing that is its own reward.  As for me, I found this movie somewhat rewarding in the same way that I enjoy taking an afternoon nap.

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Anonymous said...

Great review! I felt much like you did about this little film that tries too hard to be both homespun and profound.
I do love the story and especially the questions it asks about life. I'm intrigued enough by this flawed film to read the book.
My favorite character was the philosopher but the acting is all over done and stilted.

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks, I appreciate your comment!