By 1994, for the first time Meryl had experienced a bit of a drought in film recognition. Despite 1991's Defending Your Life doing well with critics, it failed to make much of a splash at the box office. Death Becomes Her fared a bit better, despite the strangeness of its plot. And The House of the Spirits a year later...well let's just say it was time for something different. The River Wild provided that change of pace.
Directed by Curtis Hanson (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, L.A. Confidential), this was the first time we saw Streep in an action-packed, psychological thriller. Up to this point Meryl had not really done anything like what we'd consider a conventional "popcorn" movie. And as I've thoroughly covered in the past, the early 90's was a departure from Meryl's historical blueprint for film choices. Regardless of her reasons for choosing these scripts, had her series of comedies during this time garnered her more recognition, I wonder if she would've participated in River. But so it goes.
The picture follows Gail (Meryl), a former rafting guide who now lives in Boston with her husband Tom (David Strathairn) and two children. The family is planning a rafting trip out west where Gail grew up, but as we learn has become a pattern, Tom has to cancel last minute due to his busy work schedule. Gail and her children depart without Tom, but he ends up showing up after all. Upon the family's arrival in Idaho, they meet up with Gail's parents. Here we get to see Meryl utlizing American Sign Language, as her character's father is deaf. The family's ability to sign serves an important function later in the picture.
Before embarking down the river (the young daughter stays ashore with Grandma and Grandpa) the family meets a trio of men planning the same rafting trip. Something seems a bit "off," but Tom's really the only one who doesn't trust them at first. I rewatched the movie this afternoon and recall thinking that at this point in the film I just want everything to stay like this; the family is together, the scenery is beautiful and we can expect a lovely trip. Of course that's not what happens. We quickly learn that Tom's assumptions about the men are correct. Reconnecting with the men (now down to just two of them) downstream, Wade (Kevin Bacon) and Terry (John C. Reilly) join up with Gail and her family under the guise that Gail will help them to more safely make it down the river.
We quickly learn that Wade and Terry are actually on the run from the law, having robbed a cattle auction and now hoping to escape to Canada. Gail's family is essentially taken hostage, forcing her to help them make it through the tough rapids. Tom runs off to avoid being shot after a failed attempt to take Terry's gun, and most of the second half of the film is a back and forth of missed chances for escape. Eventually, with Tom singnaling his presence with sign language markings on a cliff and Gail devising a plan to knock Wade and Terry out the boat, the family frees themselves, having endured several dangerous and violent experiences.
Despite the plot being rather predictable, Hanson's film manages to provide its share of suspense. The backdrop of the action is breathtaking, and if nothing else the film is worth watching for its cinematography alone. The acting, not surprisingly, is very good. As she always does, Meryl succeeds at creating a believable history for Gail. We're able to see through her reaction to Tom's news that he won't be joining the family that their marriage has not been on the firmest ground lately.
Joseph Mazzello, who plays their son Rourke, does a fantastic job. I imagine it was a challenging role for a child, having to go through the full specturm of emotion, from elation at family adventure, to the fear and sadness of he and his parentss lives being in danger. Streep too negotiates this well. Gail is a physically and mentailly tough woman, but pulling it together for the sake of her family's safety is an essential action even she struggles to manage. Faced with these threats, one would have to become almost robotic to get through the ordeal. We feel that struggle and the building intensity of Gail's desperation up until the film's climactic final scene.
Phyical transformation is nothing new to Streep, but this role was a bit different. Instead of simply losing or gaining weight, or donning a wig, her appreance change comes in a sort of "buff" physique. Navigating the rapids had to be a grueling physical task, but I'd guess she went beyond what would be necessary for the film. It likely took months of work to get herself as strong as she looked.
The film did OK at the box office, with about $47 million domestically and $94m wordlwide. Streep earned both Golden Globe and SAG (in its inaugural year) nominations, with Kevin Bacon receiving a Globe nod in supporting as well. It was a needed change in the trajectory of Meryl's screen career, and she herself has said that she left the experience of filming The River Wild with a lot of important life lessons. I'll leave it up to the reader to envision exactly what those lessons may be.