The characters and the audience take a wild ride in The River Wild, a tense, sharply made thriller about a family held hostage during a river rafting vacation. Pic marks a career watershed for Meryl Streep, outstanding as a buff white-water rafter who has it all over the men around her.
Looking robust and glowing with healthy color, Streep is first glimpsed sculling at sunset in Boston, where her character, Gail, lives with architect hubby Tom (David Strathairn), two kids and a dog. Gail, son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), whose 10th birthday the vacation out West is celebrating, and Fido are virtually hopping aboard their raft when Tom belatedly joins them.
Gail, who grew up amidst these spectacular mountains, used to be a river guide and knows its every twist and turn, a fact seized upon by a trio of supposed fishermen, led by the friendly Wade (Kevin Bacon), when their guide mysteriously disappears. It turns out that the pack Wade is carrying contains $250,000 that he and Terry robbed from a cattle auction. They’ve also already killed two men.
First-time screenwriter Denis O’Neill and director Curtis Hanson tighten the screws skillfully after Wade takes charge. The cat-and-mouse game continues suspensefully until the climactic encounter with the Gauntlet rapids, where Nature effectively becomes an unknown third force in the battle of wits.
Production materials state that Streep did 90% of the rapids work herself, but film makes it look as though she did it all. Bacon proves insidiously effective as a boyish baddie, and John C. Reilly’s white trash sidekick reps the film’s most forceful reminder of its closest precursor, Deliverance.