The River Wild (1994) is a film about a river that’s wild. It’s notable for the legendary Meryl Streep putting her action pants on, with Kevin Bacon also in a supporting role.
Directed by Curtis Hanson (1945-2016), the film was quite well received by critics and remains a tense, family-friendly (PG-13) action romp with lots of water.
Plus, did we mention there’s a really wild river in it!? Hell yeah!
The River Wild is a Cautionary Tale About Fast-Flowing Water
Yes, so this was a Wapojif family rental we enjoyed back in those heady days of 1994.
One thing that immediately stood out for us was the role of Joseph Mazzello as the son Roarke. He was fresh from being in dino-fest Jurassic Park (1993), which was like the biggest film ever at the time.
But we look back now and what stands out is Streep, who hasn’t taken too many roles like this in her distinguished career.
The River Wild follows the married Hartman couple Gail (Streep) and Tom (David Strathairn). He’s an architect and overworking, which is putting strain on their marriage. Gail is a history teacher.
They’re taking a holiday with their son Roarke (Mazzello) down the Salmon River in Idaho of the United States of America (just in case you weren’t clear on that).
Plus, there’s their dog Maggie.
Whilst paddling around, they stumble across three rafters called Wade (Bacon), Terry (John C. Reilly), and their guide Frank (William Lucking).
Initially, they seem very friendly. But the Hartmans catch up with them later and find Frank is now missing.
Wade and Terry say he’s hiked out of the area after an argument.
Lost without their guide, Gail offers to help them down the river as she knows about that type of thing and all that.
However, it soon transpires Wade and Terry are criminals on the run. The family tries to make a break for it, but that SOB Wade ain’t letting it happen.
Obviously, the real villain there was TIM FROM JURASSIC PARK! Or “Roarke” as he’s changed his name to in this film.
Kid… you are to blame for all the bad stuff that follows in the film.
And what does follow are quite a lot of well done, tense scenes where the family battles to escape the two lunatics.
Tom is able to break off from the family and tracks them down river, that’s after an tense cliff face scene where he’s trying to hide from Wade and Terrt.
Then we have the Little Niagara rapids, where Gail uses her smarts to get Wade and Terry into trouble.
Ultimately, you can tell there’s going to be a happy ending here.
Spoiler alert. Wade gets his brains blown out! Then Terry is arrested and the family is reunited. Hurray!
Sadly, Roarke is not also arrested for triggering off all the trauma. There’s no justice, man. For shame!
At least the dog Maggie makes it through okay, too.
Having rewatched all this, we’ve got to say it’s an effective family-friendly thriller. Yeah, it was never going to be James Cameron’s Abyss (1989) water-based levels of brutality and real-life terror.
But the cast is great, especially Streep (when is she not!?) and Bacon (when is he not!?).
Bacon wasn’t a huge star by that point, having recently come from flicks like Tremors in 1990. But the ’90s went on to cement his position as an icon of cinema.
And he’s a great villain here! Wooing the ladies with his looks (that includes various flirting scenes between Wade and Gail), before flipping the lid and going all mental on everyone.
They don’t end up going on a date, which is a shame. But shooting someone in the head is usually a red flag when it comes to dating.
Yeah, meanwhile the film was pretty well received in 1994. Although some critics were critical of certain aspects of the narrative.
It’s easy for the more austere critics to sneer at The River Wild’s antics, but this is a family-friendly film. And it does its job very well—as kids, we were quite fascinated by its portrayal of good vs evil. Particularly through Bacon’s manipulative performance (at first nice, but then nasty).
You know, it’s like life lessons for kids. As you grow up and begin to realise adults aren’t always the best things to be around.
And films can play a very educational role in all that.
The River Wild’s Production
Before filming, the crew looked for shooting locations across Middle Ford of the Flathead River in the Canadian Rockies, or the Kootenai River in Montana, US.
The whole crew also spent two weeks of R&D around white water rafting.
The shoot began in August of 1993, with locations for the rapids scenes varying from:
- Koootenai River valley
- Colorado River
- Rogue River in South Oregon
- Middle Fork of the Flathead River
Streep was 45 at the time and actually did a number of her stunts. Certainly one of the most physically demanding roles she’s had.
Her and director Hanson clashed once after he requested she do one scene, despite her exhaustion after a day of work. The scene went ahead and Streep was almost swept away by the rapids.
The rest of the time, a specialised team was available to perform the rest of the stunts.
Off its big $45 million budget, the film was a hit and earned $94.2 million worldwide.
Although critics weren’t enamoured by the film, Streep got a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. And a nomination for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role.
Bacon got a nomination for Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Other than that, The River Wild has kind of turned into something of forgettable footnote in a lot of the crew members’ careers. You won’t find Streep calling it her onscreen highlight or anything.
The same for her onscreen husband Strathairn, who’s had far more distinguished roles in the likes of the Temple Grandin film (2010).
And whilst it may all look forgettable now, nostalgia is a pleasant thing.
For us, looking back and watching it now, the film transports us back to 1994 when we were dumb kids running and smashing things.
It’s far from perfect, but it has a special place in our cold, dark, bleak hearts.