An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: A River Runs Through It (1992)
PUBLISHED: 09:00 18 November 2017
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
A River Runs Through It; dir: Robert Redford; Starring: Brad Pitt, Craig Sheffer, Emily Lloyd, Tom Skerritt and Brenda Blethyn. Cert: PG; (1992)
On the surface a movie about fly-fishing doesn’t sound like a must-see film-going experience but like so much in life appearances can be deceptive.
Based on a best-selling booking former English professor Norman Maclean, it tells the semi-autobiographical tale of his family. Fly-fishing, it seems, is both a metaphor for life and the one thing that bonded the boys to their father during those turbulent teenage years.
For director and narrator, Redford this film is clearly a labour of love marrying a story of family and relationships with the drama of the great outdoors.
Beautifully shot in the wilds of Montana, the wild, free-flowing river and the mountainous terrain form important characters in the story. As Norman’s preacher father tells his sons, if you can read the river and understand the behaviour of fish then you will be equipped to deal with life.
Although a young Brad Pitt is the above-the-title star, this is a Robert Redford film. Not only does Pitt bare an uncanny resemblance to a young Barefoot in the Park era Redford but Redford himself provides the narration, propelling the story along with choice passages from Maclean’s atmospheric book.
This is a film about memories, regrets and choices. Set between 1910 and 1935, the film follows the lives of two brothers Norman (Craig Sheffer) and Paul (Brad Pitt). They spend their days either at riverside or in church. Their father (Tom Skerritt), a Presbyterian minister, teaches them about the complexities of life through the art of catching trout.
Although both brothers inherit their father’s love of writing, they are very different personalities. Norman, the older sibling, is the sober, would-be academic, while Paul is the wayward newspaper reporter yearning to live life to the full in the city.
In Pitt’s hands Paul is a golden-haired free spirit who drinks too much, gets himself deep in debt losing at cards and loves breaking the hearts of the women he so easily wins.
As the years roll by, it’s clear that Norman needs to spread his wings and lands a place at a prestigious Ivy League university while the seemingly carefree Paul is reluctant to leave home. Redford’s narration (as Norman) explains that Paul is unwilling to leave the wild Blackfoot River or the prize fish he has yet to catch.
However, when Norman returns home many years later he discovers that the family has drifted apart. Norman realises that it is up to him to draw everyone back together again and the best way to that is through fishing.
A River Runs Through it must have been a very hard book to adapt because so much of the story is contained in the thoughts and feelings of Norman which is why Redford’s narration is so important but at the same time, these insights, along with Philippe Rousselot’s stunning cinematography which capture the majesty of landscape in such vivid detail, give the movie a real sense of grounded intimacy.
This is a film about families and choices. It is about all of us and our relationships with our nearest and dearest. It is about growing up.
A River Runs Through It may be a gentle film but it’s also a serious film – not in a hit you over the head with a message way – however, it does make you think. The setting in the recent past lends a timelessness to the story which works well.
It’s a film with no heroes. Paul may appear to be the good-looking charismatic rebel (and the best fisherman) and the screen lights up whenever Brad Pitt walks into a scene but in narrative terms it is Norman and his father, the steadier, less dynamic individuals, who have the better lives because they are more in tune with the world around them.
You can’t help but wonder whether Redford is making some comment about his own life here. If there is a negative aspect to this beautiful movie it is the fact that the women in the movie get rather short-changed.
Brenda Blethyn’s mother, Norman’s girlfriend played by Emily Lloyd and Paul’s scandalous native American lover are only very briefly sketched. There’s very little depth or colour in their roles and that’s a pity because a female perspective would added even greater understanding about the dynamics of this complex family.
Nevertheless Robert Redford has created a thoughtful, visually stunning film which marries people to the natural world and makes a perfect Sunday night movie.