Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Married to the Land

Film: The River
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There is a mystique about the American family farm that for whatever reason has long been a staple of a certain brand of American story. It’s only natural that film producers would jump on this particular bandwagon from time to time. The mid-‘80s was definitely that time. The River came out in 1984, a year before John Mellencamp released Scarecrow about the plight of the small farmer and the year before FarmAid, the benefit concert to benefit the same. It’s not much of a shock that The River would highlight the same basic plight.

Just so you know what we’re getting into here, The River is going to be two hours of misery even if we wind up with an uplift in the last couple of minutes. We’ll have good guys who we root for and who get constantly kicked and a bad guy who we’ll root against. And for two hours we’ll watch the good guys get screwed by the bad guys and we’ll feel bad for them. I wasn’t 10 minutes into the movie when I figured out that this was going to be one of those misery parfait movies of bad things piled on top of people who struggle mightily under the weight of the rich guys who want to run them off their land.

Our good guys in this case are the Garveys, Tom (Mel Gibson), Mae (an Oscar-nominated Sissy Spacek), and their kids Lewis (Shane Baily) and Beth (Becky Jo Lynch, who seems tailor-made for the part of farm waif with one front tooth not fully grown in). The Garveys live in eastern Tennessee on a plot of land owned by his family for generations. As the name of the film might suggest, the land borders on a river, and when the film opens up, that river is overflowing its banks right onto the Garvey farm. During the flood, the bulldozer tips over and pins Tom underneath it, and he gets free moments before drowning.

Our bad guy is Joe Wade (Scott Glenn) who more or less runs the county and used to date Mae. Joe has plans to build a hydroelectric dam that will do a couple of things. First, it will provide power for the entire county. Second, it will provide water to the farms that are not as close to the river, which includes all of Joe Wade’s land. Third, and importantly for the story here, it will completely flood the Garvey farm and the farms of another dozen or so families.

With this as the set up, it should be no shock that the Garveys are deeply in debt, the farm needs repairs, and the banker (James Tolkan) is in collusion with Joe Wade. After all, the Garveys are in deep to the bank and Wade wants the land.

The River is the sort of movie that works on my nerves when I watch it. At virtually every moment, I’m waiting for a shoe to drop and for something terrible to happen to someone in the family. When we’re 40 minutes in and Lewis is learning how to weld by helping his father fix the family tractor, I’m expecting him to burn his hand off or blind himself. Every time Tom gets in the truck and drives somewhere, I’m expecting an accident. When Mae crawls under a piece of farm equipment, I’m expecting something terrible to happen to her (and it kind of does). I try not to break out the potty mouth too much on this blog, but I hate shit like this. I hate watching something and just waiting for another shoe to drop.

It’s hard not to say that The River is well acted or well made, but I frankly hate this plot about as much as I possibly can. No one likes to see the little guy get his ass handed to him over and over, and that’s really all this movie is for the bulk of two hours. There’s no pleasure in this. There’s no joy our anything other than frustration. The River is two hours of watching other people’s problems played out in a constant stream of things getting worse and worse.

I get the point. This is supposed to outrage us. We’re supposed to look at the plight of the farmers and the greed of the bankers and the financiers and be angered by what is happening. Fine. I’m angered by it. Joe Wade taking every opportunity to fuck the little guy over is an ugly thing to see, and when he uses a personal tragedy to try to muscle in on Tom and Mae’s marriage, it happens specifically to piss us off.

I like Sissy Spacek. I like Scott Glenn. I even like Mel Gibson at this point in his career. But I do not like movies like The River and I’m not going to like it no matter how good the performances are nor how good the photography is, nor how noble the small family farmer might be.

It’s manipulative and I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that. This is just The Grapes of Wrath moved to Tennessee and the 1980s.

Why to watch The River: A classic American story.
Why not to watch: Aside from the specifics, this is just another story of the little guy getting screwed by the big one.


  1. I've haven't seen this since its initial run but you hit the nail right on the head. I also haven't thought about it in years but reading your description I remember all those plot points you touched on and the general heaviness of the film.

    1984 was the year of the farm film what with Places in the Heart, Country and this film. It's as if there was a collective meeting between the studios and they said "Hey three of the biggest box office actresses right now are salt of the earth types, okay Jessica Lange could be more glamorous when necessary but she was scrappy too, so lets stick them in hardscrabble situations and see who wins the race." Places in the Heart obviously emerged as the biggest hit and vote getter and while it certainly had its share of trials and tribulations it never felt as oppressive as this film. I think that's partially because of something that you pointed out, Sally Field in Places has her hardships but she has her achievements and wins too, The River is one long string of bad news. I felt bad for those people but by the end I just wanted it to be over so I could get out of that theatre and go watch Romancing the Stone and cheer up.

    1. Both Places in the Heart and Country are still to come for me.

      We get something like an uplifting ending here, but even that feels like it's a "we made it through this year" type of conclusion. Characters who have a great resolve can be inspiring and worth watching, but here, we've got characters who are just stupidly stubborn. I find it difficult to care about characters who are willfully stupid.

      Needless to say, this is not a movie I'll queue up again. It's done and I'm happy it's done.

  2. Here's an earlier 1980's TV movie that fits both this category and your "Ten Days of Terror!" one. The worst part of the film was that the Coen brother's stole a major scene out of "Dark Night of the Scarecrow" and used it 15 years later in "Fargo," and now people think that the Coen's invented the scene instead of stole it. The whole film is now available online on Youtube. It's a bit slow, but that was TV during those days. However, I still find it rather scary even today, especially as I had a close friend that suffers from Bubba's affliction and much hasn't changed for her from 1981 as society still sucks for those with mental impairments no matter the year.

    1. I'll take a look. Actually, I'll add it to the list of "stuff I should see" on Letterboxd.

  3. I tried linking to a homemade trailer for "Dark Night of the Scarecrow," but I don't know if you accept linking.

    1. I'm easy. I'm always happy to take a link for something.