While Robert Redford’s labor of love A River Runs Through It (1992, Columbia TriStar, $94.95, PG) grossed a tidy $43 million in movie houses, nobody really considered it a box office smash. Nor should anyone expect this sincere, plainspoken story of two brothers in 1920s Montana to vault to the top of the video charts its first week in stores. But make no mistake: River will rent slow, wide, and deep, as word of its virtues ripples out to a little-noted chunk of the population — people who have almost forgotten that movies can speak to their lives.
They’ve forgotten because they’ve been forgotten by Hollywood. The audience that responds most strongly to River — a disenchanted amalgam of the middle-American ”silent majority,” intellectuals, and aging WASPs — doesn’t go to movies like Lethal Weapon 3 or Basic Instinct. That it has given up on modern American filmmaking is due as much to the hardness of movies — the deafening sound and Uzi editing — as to the sex, violence, and cusswords. This audience isn’t necessarily older and culturally conservative, either. It simply figures that sensory assault isn’t worth the price of a ticket. Home video offers not only convenience but a volume knob and a fast-forward button.
Neither of which is needed for A River Runs Through It: Its voice is reasonable, its pace strolling even when it should gallop. Based on the novella by the late Norman Maclean, it’s a reminiscence that puzzles over one American family with muted intensity. Norman (Craig Sheffer) and his younger brother, Paul (Brad Pitt), are raised by a terse, thoughtful father (Tom Skerritt), whose Presbyterian ministry and love of fly-fishing are united by the single idea of grace. In early scenes that are funny and touching, the elder Maclean teaches his sons that there is as much divine harmony in the soft thwack of a line on water as one can ever expect in this world.
Of the two boys, Paul grows up to embody that notion: He is charismatic where his brother is self-conscious, reckless where Norman — ”the professor” — pulls back. He’s an artist of the fishing rod, too, and it’s Redford’s quiet visual gift that we believe it. But Paul is damned to gamble and drink and push himself toward an early death. No one knows why, least of all Paul; the central, sad enigma of River is why a man gifted with grace would find it not enough, and throw the gift away.
Curiously, A River Runs Through It dances around that central story, never discussing Paul’s problems head-on. It makes no sense in terms of modern Hollywood dramatic structure — where everything’s spelled out in capital letters — but it’s in keeping with a story by and for a generation uneasy with chatty self-examination. No wonder WASPs love this movie: It raises ”We’ll talk about it later” to an elegy to missed connections. In that sense, River is a kind of prequel to Redford’s 1980 Oscar winner Ordinary People, in which the language of psychiatry made it possible for at least one son to be saved.
Here, the landscape fills in all that the characters cannot say to each other: Montana has been exquisitely photographed by Philippe Rousselot as an Eden of which man is only occasionally worthy. Some of the visual lushness comes through on the limited electronic palette of video — a few shots have a painterly beauty — but not quite enough. On tape River loses in expansiveness and gains in human intimacy: It becomes more than ever the story of a family.
Redford’s central cast holds it together. Sheffer is smart and soulful, Skerritt unbending and good. Brenda Blethyn shows us the young girl in Norman and Paul’s mother, and if Brad Pitt’s Paul is never as tormented as the story hints that he is, the actor’s movie-star ease papers over the cracks. They give a real sense of how families grow apart and into awkwardness: the way parents and adult children step politely on one another’s conversation, as if stopping each other from going through doors together.
Video also brings the movie’s flaws into closer focus. It’s too long, padded with a subplot about Norman’s true love and her crass, citified brother. Emily Lloyd is banal as the former — who knows what poetic Norman sees in her? — and Stephen Shellen is defeated by the broadness of the latter (we know he’s a loser because dogs don’t like him). But finally the movie’s tensile strengths are exactly those of the novel. Especially the spectral final epiphany: the book’s last lines that are spoken by narrator Redford over images of a much older Norman fishing the river. Given added weight by the knowledge that the real Norman Maclean died during River‘s preproduction, the film’s close stands as one of the more mystical moments in recent movies. It’s not a particularly cinematic moment, but so what? A River Runs Through It proves that Hollywood may have forgotten a few things too. B+