The River (1984): Part 2 of 2
Director: Mark Rydell
Writer: Robert Dillon and Julian Barry
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond
Producer: Robert Cortes and Edward Lewis
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1...
Even with all this, there’s still Mae who attempts to keep up the farm, home, and her children; still pursued by Joe Wade and doing her best to respectfully reject his passes to avoid risking their crop sales come next season. I even appreciate that Joe never crosses that line that seems so expected from 80s cinema. The film never wants to push an individual side. It’s disrespectful for Joe to approach Mae, but he’s really just a bro asshole. Not someone we hope dies or is killed. It’s the peak of Scott Glenn’s power; taking it up to the line, but never crossing over and allowing the final scene to play to the best of its ability.
Before getting to the end, Mae has an equally thrilling scene to the labor sequence, as while working on the tractor one afternoon, it breaks down. Earlier, Tom had returned a defective brand new hose on his tractor, struggling to find a replacement as it’s so old. Mae experiences a different mechanical problem, finding the piece and going to replace it when the gears start spinning, trapping her arm between the chain and gear, with blood pouring out of her forearm. In fairness, it’s not the best looking effect, but given that it’s the film’s one element I can criticize, it nevertheless provides a thrilling sequence as some delivery men show up to drop off grain, failing to hear her screams and then moving off. In a striking sequence I can’t even begin to understand how they shot, one of their cattle comes by which Mae antagonizes until it starts ramming into the tractor, loosening the gears until finally releasing her arm. Gear trap aside, the sequence is striking; the type of cinematic moment that you feel burned into your mind as images of her trapped arm, the hot summer sun, and the cow’s violence charging all melt into as thrilling a sequence as good as any Hitchcock.
Of course, the rain soon follows and the river floods again, though instead of Tom and his family working alone, his neighbors help, once again bulldozing the land to create a dam. Pissed that Tom and the others aren’t going to sell the farm, Joe Wade gathers his scabs and plans to force the sale by destroying the dam and flooding the fields.
After Wade arrives, one of the men throws a small bomb that blows a hole in the dam, prompting Tom to grab his shotgun and load it up, demanding Wade and the others get off their land. The man from the factory who attempted to escape then attempts to prevent anyone from fixing the breach. Tom fires a warning shot and the man freezes. Gibson’s eyes - most reminiscent from Braveheart (1995) - show that he is not kidding. He will shoot the man and anyone else who fails to get off his land.
It’s a moment that I think might send the left wing anti-gun radicals (I’m talking the people who want to abolish the second amendment) into epilepsy. Here was a hero of the working man showing the right to stand their ground; using the finest piece of freedom, that is the right to own land, to prevent anyone from taking it away; whether the big government the right might fear, or big business bloodless capitalists on the left.
In a scene that shouldn’t work but somehow does, Tom then gets into his tractor and pushes Joe Wade’s expensive Jeep into the blown pit, jumping into the water with sandbags to block it up, causing the others to create an assembly line as they feed him dirt. Ending on Joe Wade who delivers the final sand bag, immediately realizing his mistake and somehow providing redemption for a character that would typically never have any; at least not so far as to assist his alleged enemy.
The moral of the story could be discussed for hours, ranging from the dangers and greed of excess to the ways in which it infects governments and communities, to a philosophy of marriage and parenting, to the principles of labor and ownership. It played as the perfect film, combining ideas and images that not only demand a second viewing, but make you hungry for one. The type of movie that makes you want to call all your friends over for the experience. It’s a movie for any fan of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, reflecting the spirit of the working family.
Being from the 1980s, you have to appreciate how progressive Mae’s character was for the era; not as some dependent farmer wife, but as a completely independent and integral worker. The marriage had parity, if not even tipping a bit more in Mae’s direction as Tom succumbed to jealousy. It provides a brilliant motivation for Tom, never taking forefront but always demonstrating his love for his wife.
I was left thinking of Malle’s God’s Country (1985), which followed a bunch of farmers from 1979 and into the early 80s recession; demonstrating how Reagan’s policies impacted their lives amidst an era of rapid corporate consolidation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark Rydell had watched Malle’s film, or if like American Fable (2016), it’s simply one of those forgotten stories.
We don’t often think about how farmers used to work, as now with the endless mergers, many are run like fast food chains, having to abide by a strict workflow in order to stay partnered with the megafarms. From my shaky memory, the crippling of regulations during a recession allowed massive farmers to consolidate and buy up their smaller competition. In Joe Wade's case, wiping out the obstacles standing in his way in order to make room for a state of the art dam facility that’ll make him rich beyond imagination.
The River portrays another time, which for being in the 80s seemed so recent and yet is fading into history. Back when independent farmers could survive as climate change exhibited its earliest signs. There’s so much talk about these types of workers who are courted during political campaigns; from the left and the right, which while one being more honorable show their dishonor by failing to see their fellow man.
As of writing this, Trump’s tariff battle with China is finally taking root, and once again we see farmers struggling to move their crops and be forced into bankruptcy. It leaves you wondering if another massive sell off and merger will take place; further consolidating land in the name of a few rather than the many. Some will get ahead, others will refuse to sell, and most will lose their autonomy. The left fears it to the rich and the right fears it to the government; all while the two become further entrenched. The problem is so severe that it causes their passionate philosophies to never give an inch, when if they just somehow looked fairly at the problem, it could probably make things better for all. The River shows what happens when things continue to go down the current path and why we should appreciate all freedoms; however bad they might seem.
BELOW: Slim pickings on YT so here's Sissy talking about the flick
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