Movie Review: A River Runs Through It (Mar 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

Movie Review: A River Runs Through It

Reviewed by Ken Chaffin
March, 1993

10Last year all the talk in politics was of “family values.” Robert Redford has made a film that treasures the family. Redford has taken some of the stories of Norman Maclean to weave together a beautiful garment that embraces parenting, brotherhood, childhood memories of home, adolescent dreams, and maturation issues of making right and wrong choices in life.

Maclean had in mind to tell the story of his family. Only then his father had once said, would he understand this story and why it happened. Redford is reasonably true to that story and portrays this small family unit as they evolved at the turn of the last century in Missoula, Montana.

Redfor serves as narrator for “River,” Norman Maclean’s first-person account of the story. It is the story of a Presbyterian minister (Tom Skerritt), his wife (Brenda Blethyn), and their two sons, Norman (Craig Sheffer), and Paul (Brad Pitt) – the Maclean family. They are of solid, Scottish Presbyterian (read staunch Calvinist) stock. They live through the turn of an era, early twentieth century America, in an area of the country that still has vestiges of the American “old west.” It is the story of the maturation of the two sons, Norman, the elder, the more studious, cautions and reflective brother and Paul, the younger, more brash, adventurous and rebellious sibling They are boys who check out the town, who love above all else to fish. They develop into adolescents, capable of finding adventure and causing trouble. They mature into adults, making decisions about college, career, and girls. They are truly an American story of young boys growing into young men. Influenced most by their father, they grow up both accepting and rejecting his ideals and values. In the audience, you feel as if you have a window to see into this house of a parson and his family. You muse about your own family of origin as well as your present responsibilities as a parent. I found myself taking side-trips of the mind in the middle of scenes to consider ways my own families were different or the same, better or worse by comparison.

With all this pondering, one might think this a boring picture, but it isn’t. It has moments of excitement, adventure, melodrama, and a lvoe story – all of which fascinate. There is a roller-coaster ride down a rapid river in a canoe that has every element of tension and suspense that one could wish for. And it has Montana scenery. The vistas of mountains, valleys and rivers take your breath away. The cinematography captures the power and beauty of the American Northwest by showing us streams and forests, peaks and meadows, that manifest more of God than of humans.

The metaphor that Maclean (and therefore Redford) uses to describe life is fishing – more precisely, fly fishing (people who use worms for bait are not proper fishermen by Maclean’s standards). The opening line of the story and the movie is, “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.” The Reverend Maclean was the teacher in all things, from academic schoolwork, especially how to write “with thrift,” to afternoon nature walks that taught the “natural side of God’s order,” to fly-casting, a “simple four-stroke rhythm.” In each of these “schools,” plus matters of morality, all things came from God via the Reverend Maclean. Such subjects were based on the words of God which are beneath the half-billion-year-old rocks” in the bed of the trout stream the boys fished. And if you listened hard enough, said the father to the boys, throughout their lives those words from God would always be there.

Therein lies the intrigue and drama of the story. Norman, who aspires early to either be a minister or writer, does for the most part stay in tune with such wisdom. Norman says at one point in the movie that his father’s words in sermons “made me feel most at home.” Paul, though he stays at home, never leaving Montana, becomes the prodigal. Right and wrong are more confusing for the boys as they get older, and Paul allows his rebellious streak of drinking and gambling to rule his existence. His parents struggle to understand this seemingly unique son that God has given them.

For me, this family love was the ultimate beauty of the film, more lovely than the mountains, more graceful than the river. The Reverend Maclean confesses to Norman that he doesn’t understand people like Paul (the rebels). The father continues, “But we can still love them, love them completely, without complete understanding.” Through the Macleans we learn such love is possible despite the ups and downs of life.

Theologically, it is a rich film experience. It is a delightful reminder that the two themes which dominate Presbyterian thinking are crucial and governing to an ordinary pastor’s view of life and the world. The “sovereignty of God” is at the heart of all thinking for the Reverend Maclean. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Maclean tells his sons that all things come by grace, and grace comes by art, but art does not come easy. In other words, all things come from God, but humans must love God by continuing to perfect them. That brings up the second theme: “All things are to be done decently and in order.” As noted, fly-casting is learned as a simple four-stroke rhythm. In fact, it is practiced by use of a metronome, so that one will not corrupt the graceful art of casting. Such matters are symbolic of the order of life and the beauty of such order.

Christ is central to such life. Life without Christ is to be pitied, but with Christ, even the poor “can become princes and kings.” Sin is the central problem of life. Sin is disorder, disarray or disobedience. It is dealt with forcefully, but forgiveness is always available.

I am grateful to Robert Redford for moving outside normal Hollywood agendas to bring us this story. It proves that good filmmaking and solid entertainment can come from more than car chases, sexual voyeurism, and murderous violence. He has proved that good stories can provide good films.

May I suggest that you see this film in a full-sized theater. I am convinced the scenery or the mood will not translate well to video cassettes for home television. What will translate is a great story by Norman Maclean – a story of family love and real family values. This is a film that charms, touches, and inspires.Wineskins Magazine

Ken Chaffin

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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