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'The River Wild' (1994) Is One of the Most Underrated Films of the 90s

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Lee has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.


An Underrated Film Worth Watching

The River Wild is a 1994 adventure thriller starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon. (I honestly confused Meryl Streep with Helen Hunt and was surprised to recall that Streep was in this. Am I a bad person? Maybe I was confusing this with Twister. Same basic plot.)

I have loved this film for years, and I was surprised to realize that not many people actually know about it. How is this possible when the story was so good and there was so much talent involved?

I guess it should be obvious. Any movie with a female lead is always going to be handwaved as a "chick flick" because anything made about women, for women is instantly silly and worthless. And we all know that men can't sit through a film where the token female character isn't naked, a stereotype, or serving men in some way.

Sarcasm aside, the story is about a dysfunctional family who goes on a rafting trip along the river in Idaho and runs into a group of criminals who take them hostage. It stars a woman as the protagonist, which goes to show -- yet again -- that 90's movies were really all about depicting strong female characters.


Plot Synopsis

Meryl Streep plays Gail Hartman, a woman who is strong and beautiful. In fact, she is so strong, her nerdy husband can't handle her and their marriage is falling apart.

In the opening, we see Gail race her raft against an oncoming train, a scene that is shown to highlight how daring and wild she still is, even after becoming a wife and mother.

Gail's husband, Tom Hartman (David Strathairn), works himself to the bone 'round the clock because he is intimidated by his wife's strong spirit and feels the need to prove he's just as strong. Or perhaps he's trying to prove he is worthy of her.

This is exactly why you don't get into a relationship with someone you don't feel on the same level as. If you feel unworthy of them or if you feel they are better than you in any way, you are going to eventually harbor resentment toward them, and I guarantee the relationship will not last.

The great thing about Gail is that she refuses to dim her light in order to appease her husband's insecurities. And that's the way it should be. You either level up or find someone on your level. Never ask someone to diminish themselves for you.

All that being said, Gail is a strong female character because she is depicted as a human being. She's not a plot device. She's sexy but not a sex object. She doesn't exist solely to titillate the male audience, and when she's naked, there's a damn good reason.

In other words, the character is not treated like free porn or a plot device that exists solely to help the main male character along. In fact, Gail is the main character, and a lot of the story revolves around defining her as a person. Her decisions and her inner strength and resolve are what drive the plot forward.

I tell ya, the 1990s was on fire with the sheer amount of strong female characters it had. I'm still scratching my head and wondering what the hell happened in the years that followed. We haven't had this many remarkable female characters since.


The Villain Appears

It's when Gail and her son, Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), are about to set off in their raft that they meet Wade (Kevin Bacon), the villain of the tale, who decides to get chummy with them because Gail is so attractive.

Men like that make me a little sick, to be honest. You know. The kind that are only nice to women they want to have sex with. When watching the scene, the thought always immediately pops into my mind that Wade would not have bothered the family if he hadn't found Gail so attractive.

Wade tells Gail he wishes he was coming with her, and Gail laughs nervously as she picks up on the red flag. A decent man would not say something like that to a woman who is traveling alone, a lone woman whose greatest threat is not the wild river itself, but the wild and strange men who are traveling along it.

Roarke makes the mistake of telling Wade that his mother used to be a river guide. You can see Wade making a mental note of the fact: if he runs into Gail later, he can use her to find his way.

Though Kevin Bacon's Hollow Man is probably the worst thing to come out of Hollywood ever, he is a pretty great actor and this is actually one of my favorite films that he ever did, the other one being Tremors.

He really played Wade well (say that three times fast). From the moment he first appears on screen to the second the movie ends, you can plainly see he's a scumbag. It's obvious to anyone who has come across his kind before. The look is there in his eyes, and looking at this film again as someone who is older and wiser, it's amazing how well Kevin Bacon pulled off that look.

That dangerous, plotting look.


Like most dangerous men, Wade is friendly and charming. Gail and Roarke fall into his trap because of the hole Tom has left in their lives. Gail craves attention from a man and Roarke craves attention from a father.

Wade supplies both.

Wade flirts with Gail, who decides she enjoys it so much that she's going to pretend as if Tom isn't, in fact, her husband. For Gail, she probably hasn't been doted on by a man in years and is leaping on the opportunity to feel wanted again.

Meanwhile, Wade is kind to Roarke as a way of getting to Gail. Being kind to children is always the way predators like Wade get to women. It's amusing when the woman doesn't actually like kids -- and deadly when the woman falls for it.

Using children to lure women (and other children) is probably the oldest trick in the predator handbook. There's always this assumption that a man who is nice to children and animals must be a great person, and that's how these people get away with their evil.


Wade is traveling with two accomplices, Frank (William Lucking) and Terry (John C. Reilly). When Frank mysteriously "leaves" his friends, Wade decides to wait for Gail and her family to catch up to them, having remembered that she was a river guide.

Wade and Terry don't know how to get around the rapids on their own and ask Gail for her help. Gail has decided that Wade is harmless just because he flirted with her (hoo boy, that is never an indication that a man is harmless) and is still feeling the head-swelling effects of his playful compliments, so she agrees to help him, no questions asked.

This is the point where things turn sour.


After Maggie (the family dog) almost digs up Frank's dead body, we get a glimpse of how psycho Wade really is.

Gail warns Wade and Terry to stay on the right side of the river, avoiding the rapids. Wade fails to follow her instructions, and he and Terry wind up nearly drowning.

It's a shame they didn't let Wade's sorry ass drown, but alas, Tom bravely leaps in to save Wade. Without hesitation. Without a thought. The act is so selflessly heroic, we realize for the first time exactly why Gail is in love with this nerdy man.

Wade, on the other hand, is actually a coward. All bullies and predators are. He goes into such a panic that he nearly drags Tom down with him, and Tom is forced to punch him, knocking him out so that he can save his life.

Wade later thanks Tom for saving him in private but also seems to hold a grudge that Tom punched him. He's so insane, he can't see how it was necessary. He only knows that Tom -- a man who he's already jealous of -- has hurt him in some way and now he wants revenge. Doesn't seem to matter that he was hurt in order to save his life.

The first thing Wade does to exact revenge? He plays on the rift already in the family. First, he takes all of Gail's attention away from her husband by walking around with his shirt off and getting her to teach him to fish.

Later, when the group is resting around the fire, Gail brings out a small birthday cake and surprises Roarke with a present. Tom chimes in, giving Roarke a pocketknife, and as if to seize the moment for revenge, Wade gives Roarke an inappropriate amount of money from his robbery loot.

Roarke is furious when his father tells him he can't have the money and storms off, leaving Tom feeling guilty while Wade smugly smiles.

Pervert alert.

Pervert alert.

The tension cranks up a notch the night Gail and Tom reconcile. Tom reveals that he works so hard because he wants Gail to be proud of him again. They agree not to divorce, and as they are sharing a kiss, Roarke calls for them.

Tom decides to head back to camp and try to make things right with Roarke (I can't believe they even left their son alone with those two strange men), while Gail stays behind to bathe in the river.

The scene is probably one of the most tastefully done nude scenes I've ever seen in a film. We don't see Gail's breasts or backside, which means the scene serves one function entirely: to show us how dangerous Wade is.

The scene is not about exploiting Meryl Streep. The scene is not about free soft porn. The scene is not about titillating the male audience.

The scene is about building suspense and character development.

When Gail looks up to find Wade watching her bathe from the shadows, the stakes are raised. We know for a fact beyond a doubt now that the protagonist is in danger. The next question is, how will she get out of it?

That dead-ass stare. Tom ain't scared of shit.

That dead-ass stare. Tom ain't scared of shit.

Gail and Tom decide they are going to pack their crap and take off first thing in the morning. But unfortunately for the family, Wade is an intelligent predator. He knows that getting caught peeping at Gail has revealed him to be a dangerous monster, and so he takes steps to keep her as his unwilling guide.

Wade basically kidnaps Roarke, taking him away on his raft under the pretense of wanting to "hang out " with a child. Roarke innocently goes along with him, ignoring his parents as they yell "No!" from the shore.

While drifting along with Roarke, Wade decides to show the boy his gun. The point of the scene is not only for Wade to gain Roarke's trust by letting him in on a secret but also to build yet more suspense. The audience now knows that Wade is armed, which makes him ten times more dangerous.

And people say guns aren't dangerous. I doubt the movie would have been half as intense if Wade was armed with, say, a pocket knife.

Once Gail and Tom rejoin Roarke, they make a break for it while Wade and Terry are bathing in the stream. Roarke doesn't understand what's going on and refuses to run with his parents. This causes the family to get caught mid-flee, and Tom is punched and belittled by Wade, who is very proud of having charmed Roarke onto his side.

Roarke learns the hard way how to spot a wolf in sheep's clothing (in fact, there is no easy way) when Wade slaps him for revealing that he had a gun. A sullen and shocked Roarke says, "I thought you were a nice guy." To which Wade replies that he's a different kind of Nice Guy.

Like all scumbags, Wade was just pretending to be nice to get what he wanted -- namely, for Gail to guide him down the river.

Because Wade only needs Gail (and because he needs Roarke to control Gail), he reminds Tom that he and the dog are expendable. He then turns his gun on Maggie and nearly shoots her before Roarke makes the dog run away.


Along the river, they are approached by Ranger Johnny (Benjamin Bratt), and Wade reveals that not only is he a murderer, a sexist, and a thief, he's also a racist. Ranger Johnny is Native American and Wade smiles as he hurls an old slur in the ranger's face, calling him an "Indian" and pointing out how badly his people have it.

Wade might have been creating an uncomfortable atmosphere in order to make Johnny leave, but I get the feeling his racism came from a real place. The fact that he brought up being "white trash" -- a sad attempt to equate that with living with racism -- speaks volumes to his "white privilege doesn't exist" mentality. (Uh oh. I acknowledged that white privilege is real. How terribly anti-white of me to acknowledge reality.)

The fact that people can't grasp how bad it is to live with racism versus just being poor is evidence of privilege in and of itself: you can't understand it because you don't have to live with it -- which is a privilege. Being poor and living with racism is worse than just being poor.

Apparently, Wade thinks there's nothing worse than being poor. Which is probably why he's a robber in the first place.

After being insulted, Ranger Johnny leaves, unaware that Tom was writing "S.O.S." in the dirt with his boot, and the nightmare continues.


Later at night, Tom cuts himself free with Roarke's pocketknife and tries to steal the gun while Wade and Terry are sleeping. The criminals wake up, and Tom is forced to run instead. As Wade pursues, Tom scales the cliffs, desperately trying to escape. Wade supposedly guns him down, leaving his body to drop underwater.

It's pretty clear, however, that Tom is still alive. For one thing, it was previously established that Tom can swim and can hold his breath for long periods of time. This became apparent when he saved Wade's life. For another thing, no body is floating. If Tom was dead, his body would have resurfaced and floated there.

Wade isn't stupid, so he must know Tom is still alive. Yet he goes back to the camp and tells Gail that her husband is dead. It's apparent he's doing this just to hurt her, so that he can watch her cry.

Gail does not cry. Instead, she shows what a truly badass protagonist she is when she sits down and coldly says, "I'm going to kill you."

To make it clear, there is nothing wrong with crying. There's nothing wrong with women crying. There's nothing wrong with men crying.

Gail's reaction is badass because she refuses to give Wade the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

Go, White River!

Go, White River!

As I said, Gail's husband is still alive and meets up with Maggie. The two of them start working together for the first time in the film as they race to get ahead of Wade and Gail.

Meanwhile, Gail has another moment of badassery when she unties one of the raft's oars and smacks both Wade and Terry over into the river.

She is such an awesome protagonist. Mostly because she's an ordinary person -- not a super hero or an alien or something -- and most ordinary people wouldn't survive this kind of situation. That's what makes Gail protagonist-worthy material.


Unfortunately, the river is shallow right there. Wade and Terry stand up, very wet but not drowning, and Gail is forced to let them back into the raft at gunpoint.


Gail's original plan is to upturn the boat in an attempt to kill Wade and Terry but also at the risk of killing herself and Roarke. She changes her mind when she sees her husband's smoke signals in the sky and passes them through "Little Niagara" safely instead.

Wade notices Gail has changed her mind and seems to suspect that Tom is following them. It's funny when Gail blows him off and shoves oars at the two men, yelling at them to obey her. Their faces in the picture above are priceless.


As Tom scales along the cliff face with Maggie, we are shown exactly what kind of dangerous waters Gail survived when she was eighteen. The white river churning and foaming in a ceaseless rage is enough to make anyone's jaw drop. That Gail survived it is a testament to her strength.

Now she must survive it again.


Ranger Johnny shows up again, trying to stop Gail from running the gauntlet. When he announces that he's going to have to radio in a helicopter to take them away, Wade shoots him in the chest and horrifically throws him in the river.

Gail gives him an "I will kill you, asshole" look before walking away.


Gail gets the criminals through the gauntlet. Meanwhile, her husband has set up a trap for them, leaving symbols on the trees for her to read. She recognizes the signs and steers the boat into the trap.

Tom sets the trap off, and Wade and Terry are knocked in the water. This culminates in the climatic final battle: the Hartmans against the robbers.


The two robbers manage to corner Gail's husband with knives just as she gets her hands on the fallen gun. Wade gives a fantastically fake speech about how Gail will feel bad if she kills him, and a little piece of me dies when she lifts the gun in the air to shoot it at the sky instead. I really, really wanted her to just blow his ass away like a boss.

When she fires at the sky, she realizes the gun is empty. Wade immediately drops his act and goes back to being an asshole, telling Terry to kill both Tom and Roarke. As he is speaking, Gail checks the chamber and realizes there is a bullet left, it's just not lined up. She rolls the bullet into place, then shoots Wade.

The look on her face when she blows him away. Hahaha.


So the Hartmans get their happily ever after.

Tom learns to appreciate his wife's strength while at the same time recognizing his own strengths and that he is already worthy of her; Roarke learns to love his father again after feeling neglected by him; and Gail survives to continue her happy life. Even the dog, Maggie, survived.

A heartwarming ending all around.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Lee