I don't think anybody who has ever visited the American West, particularly the north-western states of Montana and Wyoming, hasn't come away deeply impressed with the majestic beauty of their mountains, rivers, streams, endless skies, prairies and meadows. Many probably went home to find that the photos they took, trying to immortalize their impressions, just didn't seem to do justice to the real thing, and wishing they possessed the craft to adequately capture the region's beauty in images, whether literary or visual. Robert Redford has succeeded to combine words and pictures in this stunning adaptation of Norman Maclean's 1976 autobiographical novella "A River Runs Through It."
Set in early 20th century rural Montana, this is the coming-of-age story of the author and his brother Paul, sons of a Scottish Presbyterian minister who raised them with both love and sternness and instilled in them, more than anything else, an understanding for the divine beauty of their land, symbolized by and culminating in a fly fisherman's skill in casting his rod, and his ability to become one with the river in which he fishes. For, in Norman Maclean's words, in their family "there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing;" and growing up, the brothers came to believe quite naturally that Jesus's disciples themselves must have been fly fishermen, too; and that consequently every good fly fisherman is closer to the divine than any other human.
But while they were united by their love for their native land and its rivers and fish, the brothers couldn't have been any more different on a personal level. And thus, this is also a story of brotherly (and parental) love and loss, of the inability to communicate, and of dreams and aspirations nurtured and fatally disappointed. While disciplined, sensible Norman (Craig Sheffer) left Montana for a six-year college education at Dartmouth and ultimately - after having temporarily returned home and taken a bride - to assume a teaching position at the University of Chicago, rebellious Paul (Brad Pitt in a truly career-defining role) knew that he would never leave his home state and "the fish he had not yet caught;" and opted for a journalist's life instead. But ultimately he wasn't able to fight the demons that possessed him; and his parents and brother had to stand by and helplessly watch him embark on a path of self-destruction, reduced to comments on symbolic matters like Paul's decision to change the spelling of their last name by capitalizing the "L" ("Now everybody will think we are Lowland Scots," scorned their father), where to open topicalize their concerns would have destroyed the careful equilibrium of mutual respect, love, hope, caution and guardedness characterizing their relationship. And so, only after Paul's death could his father tell a hesitant Norman that he knew more about his brother than the fact that Paul had been a fine fisherman: "He was beautiful" - and mourn in a sermon, even later, that all too frequently, when looking at a loved one in need, "either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely, without complete understanding."
Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt are perfectly cast as the earnest, reasonable Norman and his maverick brother Paul, who relies on his innate toughness in his fateful attempt to take life to its limits and still beat the devil, but who also turns the casting of a fishing line into an art form that makes a rainbow rise from the water, and who with his greatest-ever catch stands before his father and brother "suspended above the earth, free from all its laws, like a work of art." Moreover, this movie reunited Robert Redford with Tom Skerritt, with whom he had first shared the screen in the 1962 Korean war drama "War Hunt" (both actors' big-screen debut), and who gives a finely-tuned, sensitive performance as the Reverend Maclean. Notable are also the appearances of Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Maclean and Emily Lloyd as Norman's bride-to-be Jessie. But the movie's true star is Montana itself, particularly its rivers and streams; every frame of Philippe Rousselot's Academy Award-winning cinematography and every sweep of the camera over Montana's magnificent landscape, and along the silver bands of its rivers with their gurgling cataracts and waves curling softly against their banks, powerful testimony to Robert Redford's genuine love and respect for the West and for nature in general; the causes closest to his heart and matched in importance only by his efforts to promote a movie scene outside of Hollywood. And Redford himself assumes the (uncredited) role of the narrator, thus bringing to the screen Norman Maclean's lyrical language and uniting words and pictures in an audiovisual sonnet, subtly accentuated by Mark Isham's gentle score.
Both movie and novella end with the lines that have given the story its title: "[I]n the half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul; and memories, and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River, and a four-count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one; and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs" - those of Norman Maclean's now-lost loved ones; those he "loved and did not understand in [his] youth." As we have had to learn, it is not only human life that is terminal; even nature itself (including, incidentally, the Macleans' beloved Big Blackfoot River) is not immune to destruction by human carelessness. This movie is a powerful plea to all of us not to wait until it has become too late.
Also recommended:A River Runs through It and Other Stories, Twenty-fifth Anniversary EditionThe Norman Maclean ReaderNorman MacLean (Western Writers)The Big SkyDesert SolitaireJeremiah JohnsonThe Horse WhispererLegends of the Fall (Deluxe Edition)Spy Game (Widescreen Edition)