merylfest: THE RIVER WILD (1994)

As part of the tributes series (see: the ongoing Jack Nicholson Tribute) and to honor my other favorite living film actor, Journalistic Skepticism will be taking a look at the on-screen work of Meryl Streep. Though choosing to begin with 1994’s The River Wild is a tad unconventional, it’s also a good jumping off point as it seems to be a good in-between for what has become Prestige Meryl vs. Mainstream Meryl. Since 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County brought Streep into the spotlight as a popular actor as opposed to her early years in awards-laden prestige films such as Sophie’s Choice, I feel that starting smack dab in the middle, in Meryl’s strange stage as an apparent action star, is an ideal option.

In The River Wild, Meryl plays Gail Hartman, a former river guide who’s taking her young son (played by Jurassic Park‘s Joseph Mazello) and her nerdy husband (David Strathairn) on a rafting trip in order to keep her rocky marriage together. In clear action-thriller fashion, the family meets two shady hicks (played by Kevin Bacon and a young John C. Reilly) who eventually cause them a heap of trouble. All right, though the movie is fairly predictable (as most similar thrillers fall victim to), it’s acceptably entertaining. There’s no denying that Streep is out of her element in an action movie, but she brings a sensitivity and nuance to the performance that most muscled-up, machine-gun-toting male stars are unable to.

Bacon and Reilly are dull villains for the most part, but their antagonism fuels Streep’s formidability. It’s clear that she’s the best in the cast by a long-shot. The visuals are impressive, shot on actual rivers in Montana and Oregon, and the action is ultimately satisfying. Strathairn is underused as the quiet nerdy dad who has something to prove, but it’s Streep’s show, and he’s left with the debris she leaves behind. The ultimate lesson to be learned from The River Wild — throw an ill-fitting baseball cap on the unlikeliest of thespians and she can still carry the movie.

Meryl’s Performance: B+
The Film: B-

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