A River Runs Through It

“Long ago, when I was a young man, my father said to me, “Norman, you like to write stories.” And I said “Yes, I do.” Then he said, “Someday, when you’re ready you might tell our family story. Only then will you understand what happened and why.”

These are the poignant, mysterious lines opening Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992, PG). I missed this movie when it first came out and just saw it recently on video. It was a garage sale cast-off. My neighbor couldn’t sell it and gave it to me. I watched it, didn’t like it, and promptly consigned A River to dust bunny exile until another friend suggested I check out the soundtrack. I did. Something unexpected happened while listening to Mark Isham’s Academy-Award nominated score over and over again: I began to understand the movie’s unspoken undercurrents and emotion. Intrigued by its hauntingly beautiful music, I decided to give A River another go. I’m glad I did.

Set in the early 20th century in Missoula, Montana, this enigmatic story centers around brothers Norman (Craig Sheffer) and Paul (Brad Pitt) Maclean, two sons of a Scottish Presbyterian minister played with consummate skill by Tom Skerritt. The quintessential big brother, Norman is reserved, scholarly and sensitive. Younger sibling Paul(ie) is rebellious, loquacious, a hard drinker, gambler, and brawler. Neither is an entirely agreeable character, neither is entirely disagreeable. Like most real people, these brothers have unique strengths and weaknesses and try to help each other through life without fully understanding who the other person truly is.

Deep Water Ahead

While I still don’t “like” A River Runs Through It in the sense that it’s an upbeat, easy-to-watch, “feel good” fluff piece.  It’s not.  Instead, the movie offers a rare blend of affection, distance, dimension, beauty, insight and heartbreak that’s both mysterious and captivating. At times the river seemingly embodies the Maclean family history: placid and serene on the surface, with occasional ripples and swells suggesting deep water or dangerous rapids ahead.

Based on a novella by Norman Maclean, through whose eyes the story is told, the expansive, lyrical screenplay brings a literary quality to the screen that’s beautiful and moving. Combined with Academy-Award winning cinematography, solid performances all-around, and a story that’s alternately evocative, taciturn, lively, and tragic, A River Runs Through It represents a formidable cinematic achievement of depth, perception, and substance.

In the opening sequences, both young boys and father are united in their love for nature, the Big Blackfoot River and fly-fishing. Rev. Maclean teaches his boys the fine art of casting to a four-count rhythm cadenced by a metronome. Along the river they share experiences, casting techniques, stunning scenery, stories and life. Fishing scenes throughout the film create the sense that each man is at peace with himself and each other at the river while remaining distinctly separate and alone, as does the whole family in this elegant, elegiac story.

Powerfully Subtle

Much of the power of this story is gained from its subtlety, which is created and sustained by the narration and masterful direction of Robert Redford. Rather than resorting to spectacular special effects, mind-numbing dialogue or the gratuitous sex and violence so commonly employed by lesser storytellers with thinner plots, A River expects audiences to pick up on various cues and clues peppered throughout the screenplay with just enough seasoning to maintain full flavor. A refreshing change from the typical bash-you-over-the-head-with-its-point kind of movie, A River relies on nuance and subtlety to convey its message.

Some viewers – perhaps the less literary among us – have tagged this movie “boring.” So did I, until I gave it a second chance. The story moves at a graceful pace while requiring viewers to engage their minds and hearts to follow a film that ultimately offers more questions than answers.

Underlying Themes

Underlying themes may include a covert sibling rivalry between Norman and Paul. It breaks into the open just once – in a kitchen fist fight – but the undercurrents in tone, gesture, facial features and other non-verbals continue throughout the film. The movie obliquely hints at a dichotomy between Paulie “the tough guy” whose ready grin and lackadaisical, lassie-faire attitude belie an inner insecurity and perhaps some envy toward his “Rock of Gibraltar,” respectable older brother. Note Paulie’s reaction to Norman’s announcement regarding the offer of a professorship at a prestigious university in Chicago. Paulie doesn’t respond verbally, but his face and eyes speak volumes. This is coupled with Paulie’s subsequent decline of Norman’s invitation to join him and his future bride, Jessie, in leaving Montana to write for a Chicago newspaper.

“Witnessing Perfection”

“Come with us” Norman urges. “Oh, “I’ll never leave Montana, brother,” Paulie replies, chewing his lip before plunging back into the river with his rod. From the way the line is delivered and Norman’s reaction, you’re not sure if it’s a rebuke, a prophecy, or an eulogy. Whatever it is, the assertion underscores Paulie’s continuing struggle to find his own way in life outside of his big brother’s shadow. He then determinedly skims down the rapids to land an “unbelievable” fish. Narrates Redford, “At that moment I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection.”

“You are a fine fisherman!” proclaims Rev. Maclean as “mother’s pictures” are snapped by Norman.

“My brother stood before us, not on a bank of the Big Blackfoot River, but suspended above the earth, free from all its laws, like a work of art. And I knew, just as surely and clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last.”


Norman’s premonition proves true in the movie’s compelling closing scenes. The Missoula police inform Norman that his brother has been found dead, “beaten to death by the butt of a revolver.” We’re not told exactly how or why this happened, but gather that Paul’s murder is connected to his gambling debts and profligate lifestyle.

The impact on the family is quietly immense. Echoing themes throughout the movie, family members are both together and alone in their grief at the same time. Visibly shaken, his mother wordlessly retires upstairs. “Is there anything else you can tell me?” Rev. Maclean asks quietly.

“Nearly all of the bones in his hand were broken” replies Norman grimly, his stoic monotone belying a face etched with pain, shock, and traces of guilt.

Pause. His father, still in his bathrobe, stands and gently asks, “Which hand?”

“His right hand.”

Who WAS This Brother?

As has occurred before in this under-stated film, the obvious is left unsaid: Paul’s right hand was his fly-fishing casting hand. We get the impression that Norman spends the rest of his days struggling with his brother’s untimely death as well as the bigger question: Who was this brother of mine?

“Maybe all I really knew about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman” Redford narrates. “`You know more than that’,” my father said. ‘He was beautiful.’ And that was the last time we ever spoke of my brother’s death.”

A Beautiful Enigma

Only at the end does it become clear that Paul is meant to be a beautiful mystery. He’s an enigma to viewers because Norman can’t understand him any better than we can.  Shortly before his own death, Rev. Maclean preaches a sermon that sums up the meaning of the film:

“It is those we love and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely, without complete understanding.”

Superb and Subtle

A River isn’t for everyone.  I found the profanity and alcoholic consumption excessive and some minor scenes objectionable but not unreasonable given the subject and its characters.  It’s not an “easy” movie to watch in the sense that you can allow your mind to wander and still pick up on the visual and non-verbal clues concealed within its gentle subtext. This movie takes some attentive digging. But for those who appreciate a lavishly photographed, skillfully sequenced, superbly acted and subtlely nuanced study of family life and relationships, A River Runs Through It is one of the finest.

“I am haunted by waters” is the final emotion-laden line of this remarkable movie. An old man who’s out-lived nearly everyone he loved, Norman once again stands solo in the river with his fly-fishing rod and his memories.:

“Alone in the half-light of the canyon with 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. …

… I am haunted by waters.”

Bring Kleenex.


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