Director: Mark Rydell
Writer: Robert Dillon and Julian Barry
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond
Producer: Robert Cortes and Edward Lewis
by Jon Cvack
As mentioned with School Ties (1992), there’s a sadness I get every time I discover a good film I’ve never heard of, knowing that the chances of discovering the next one just got a bit lower. A week since seeing it, I’m confident in saying The River is the greatest American film I’ve never heard of. It’s the type of filmmaking that fails to exist today; in which big money could still tell intimate stories about seemingly small characters but within a grand environment; where there is no image wasted that doesn’t expand and progress the story forward, fully actualized by Vilmos Zsigmond.
The River’s intro is up there with Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), featuring a young boy fishing on a small creek, as rain begins to fall. We watch as the water flows through the creek, hills, and crops and make its way to its parenting river which rises. It cuts to the corn stalks in muddy fields, soon overtaken by the rising waters and then we cut to the Garvey family; trying their best to dam up the water by driving bulldozers through the land; struggling to outpace the bulging waters as they break through the mounds.
The tractor then tips over, trapping Tom Garvey’s (Mel Gibson) leg underneath and the water rushes in. His wife Mae (Sissy Spacek) and their neighbor jump in to help and in a scene as though straight out of Hard Rain (1998) - that is every bit as thrilling and credible - we watch as they rush to get Tom free. While thankful for his life, he also realizes his crops are completely destroyed, the house is damaged, and that he’ll have to go deeper into debt for repairs.
It’s an opening scene which is perfect cinema; as though lifted straight from Steinbeck. Using only images the excitement builds, from a beautiful day to a torrential and catastrophic rainstorm; slowly building bit by bit until we grasp the gravity and then move into the characters who break the natural images with a noisy and dangerous tractor; digging trenches through the ground and destroying everything in sight. It plays like a monster scene; attempting to tame some wild beast and getting trapped in the process.
The next day, we meet the one wealthy distributor in town, Joe Wade (Scott Glenn) as he gives a helicopter tour of the flood to a state senator. The images are incredible, featuring actual flooded farms; surrounded by the brown water which buries the fields below. Clearly director Mark Rydell and Vilmos Zsigmond headed to actual flood sites to catch the footage. Joe explains that the damage is done, and as floods occur more frequently, the place is perfect for a water dam; best to just let the area flood. The only problems are the farmers who refuse to sell their property.
Still, with the recent flood taking its toll, farmers have decided to auction off their equipment and land, with most of the background characters looking like they had to have been cast from the area. However, most refuses, uninterested in buying up another family’s land or equipment for pennies on the dollar for their own benefit.
The scene is intercut with Tom at the bank, where we learn that he’s delinquent on thousands of dollars from last year’s crops and is now asking for a loan to cover the present year. The banker explains that it’s impossible to repay, suggesting he look into selling his farm in order to cut his losses; maybe even to Joe Wade. It’s yet another brilliant sequence that provides the stakes we’re going to be following; that most in the area are struggling with losing everything they own and still refuse to give up.
With Joe Wade having the one market in town, he sets the prices every day however he wishes as the farmers drive up with their loads, hoping for upward movement. After the flood, Joe Wade sets prices low, enraging the farmers who declare it’s less than they spent on the crops. Wade doesn’t budge. It’s never specifically mentioned, but the suggestion is clear enough; he can starve the farmers out and then claim their land for even cheaper.
Earlier, outside the bank Joe Wade approaches Mae and propositions her, explaining how he could take good care of her and the kids. I can’t remember where I saw it but a reviewer called Sissy Spacek as the purest actor we had from the heartland (or something along those lines). There’s a complete and vivid honesty about her presence; as though she’s both acting and being in equal parts. She has no interest in Joe, yet expresses the subtlest suggestion of imagining the life he could provide for their children. You can’t help but admire how well Scott Glenn plays a slimeball; never allowing us to all hate him, always having the charm to make us suspect he might be a good guy (Backdraft (1991) is the other film that comes to mind).
The subplot also provides a beautiful dynamic between Tom and Mae, as Tom tries his hardest to contain his jealousy, with Mel Gibson’s eyes revealing he feels. He too understands the temptation. Not that he thinks there’s love so much as a better life that he’s failing to provide; where rivers don’t stand to completely wipe out their home. It’s when Tom forgets to pick up Mae while working on the house, and Joe then offers her a ride that we see the complexity of Tom’s feelings. He’s not worried that his wife is going to leave him and it’s her loyalty that creates the passions. The two make love in the kitchen; kicking their youngest son out. Nothing more than a kiss is shown and still the passion burns off the screen.
The Garveys return home and attempt to rebuild their farm and recover whatever they can of the crops while preparing for the next year, though with no money, it’s impossible to survive. Tom is forced to go take a factory job and so begins one of the most thrilling chapters of the film and what I think stands up to some of the greatest cinematography from the period.
Tom meets his other temp workers and they all hop on a truck, expecting honest work and then discovering a worker’s strike; with the labor immediately assaulting them with rocks, sticks, and whatever else they can find. They realize they’re the scabs. Unfamiliar as pertaining to union workers, I never understood the concept of scab years ago. It seemed like if people refused to work in order to get better pay than others who were willing to work for less should be able to. This film takes a brilliant approach by demonstrating both sides, but doing so from a place of empathy.
The situation is expressed through a series of wide images that you rarely see anymore; where there is always motion, movement, and depth within the screen. We move from the terrifying factory, where the less skilled workers attempt to preserve the level of quality. It’s the type of work that is hardly even possible to capture today; serving as that rare type of film as historical document; capturing a period in time when productions such as The Deer Hunter or Rudy could still find such old factories to shoot in, demonstrating how dangerous they were. It isn’t long before one worker gets seriously injured and the company starts to understand the liability.
From there we enter the barracks where the men are forced to live and sleep; with skinny bunk beds stacked up, reminding me of a battleship or submarine. It’s the type of shot reserved only for the highest level of filmmaking. We don’t need to see the entire space and all of the crew and cast and money it’d take to fill it up rather than just getting right to the conversation. But it further immerses us into the world, allowing us to experience the claustrophobia. The men are of course free to leave. Only problem is they won’t receive any security as they’re forced to walk through the picketing union workers outside. It’s the management’s ostensible method of enslavement. Sure they can leave, they just might not survive to work another day.
Nevertheless, on one particular evening, a young man attempts to break out, attempting to climb the fence when Tom and his other buddies rush up to stop him. Too late, they’re forced to hop over, where the film then almost takes the tone of a Romero zombie film as workers come out of the darkness and attack the scab labor before they finally break free. It’s a strange film where the tone of each moment plays completely unique to different genres while blending all together.
Out of nowhere, the scab labor are assembled and told that they’re no longer needed. Management has reached a deal. In one of the most thrilling scenes I can recall watching from the last few years, the company then tells the scab labor that they’ll have to walk out. The company cannot even afford the trucks to take them to safety. That, or the labor demanded it; requiring that the scab labor walk through them.
I had no idea what to expect beyond the obvious, except when the gates opened up and we saw the police, you wondered how deep it went. The police were there to keep the workers at bay, but what would happen once the workers were appeased and they all could unite behind assaulting the scab labor; especially when earlier in the film we see that not all workers are righteous; and that bad people exist on all sides. It’s enough to make us question what happens - not that Tom will die, but how badly will he suffer, then forced to go back home with the little he earned and deal with the next flooding.
As the scab labor walks out, surrounded by the workers, with police looking like they’ll remain on the sidelines should anything occur. Instead the union labor opens up the road and lets them pass. Even so, it doesn’t take long for the crowd to begin howling insults, soon throwing fruit and vegetables, and one spitting in Tom’s face. In terms of how labor is presented in movies, this must be the most nuanced film I’ve ever seen.
BELOW: No clips on the YT so here's the trailer
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