River Wild, a reimagining of the Meryl Streep action thriller, boasts a commanding performance from Leighton Meester and lean, gripping storytelling.
Rafts are the perfect setting for an action thriller. Going white water rafting is one of the ways that an ordinary person can feel as though they are the hero of an action movie. The rocking up and down of the raft produces an adrenaline rush and stomach-swooping sensation similar to that of a roller coaster. On the water, getting pushed around by currents and hoping to avoid boulders, it’s extremely easy to imagine the situation turning deadly. When, in River Wild, rafting guide Gray Reese (Taran Killam) asks the members of his group to sign a safety waiver, it barely raises an eyebrow. They would feel cheated out of the experience if it wasn’t dangerous.
A reimagining of the Meryl Streep-starring cable favorite of the same name, River Wild boasts a simple and lean plot. Joey Reese (Leighton Meester), a brusque and reserved medical doctor, joins her brother Gray on a white water rafting trip with a group that he is guiding. He is working alongside a longtime friend, the dirtbag Trevor (Adam Brody), whom Joey is uncomfortable around.
The trip starts off pleasant enough. The conversation flows easily and the rapids are a cause of excitement, instead of alarm. Joey ignores Trevor’s overtures at friendship while getting to know British tourists Karissa (Olivia Swann) and Van (Eve Connolly) and attempting to feel out her relationship with Gray, whom she hasn’t seen in a while.
The quintet makes camp for the night, while laughing, drinking and continuing to bond. The peace is disturbed when Karissa receives a skull fracture, having supposedly tripped and fallen. Karissa requires immediate medical attention, but the closest Ranger Station is two hours away. The group must brave the rapids and a series of escalating dangers in order to get back to safety.
Like Ripley in the first Alien movie, Leighton Meester’s Joey does not announce herself as a heroine, or even a main character, for that matter, making it all the more powerful when she does emerge as a sort-of final girl. River Wild starts off as an ensemble piece, with Joey sitting silently in the background. Meester’s performance is all internal, coming from the watchful intensity of her eyes and tense stillness of her body. She has a commanding screen presence that conveys intelligence and practicality. Adam Brody seems excited at the prospect of playing an unsavory character, but, unfortunately, finds one manic note to play and rarely deviates, failing to show the audience anything underneath the surface.
Ben Ketai directed River Wild, and wrote the screenplay with Mike Nguyen Le. The screenplay is rather a mixed bag, effectively tightening the screws around the audience to create a sense of gripping tension and suspense, but failing to fully develop the characters. Some bits of character motivation don’t quite convince, in that horror movie “Why don’t you just-??” sort of a way, and the villain’s psychology is left frustratingly underdeveloped. The script is efficiently constructed, with the action set pieces building off of one another in a way that feels organic and exciting, and with dialogue that is rudimentary and, at times, clunky, but never grating.
River Wild is burdened with the flat, low-contrast lighting that has unfortunately become de rigueur in the streaming era. The rafting sequences coast along visually on the strength of the river’s beauty, but it is near impossible to make out any action during the night scenes. Toward the end of the movie, Meester delivers a character-defining monologue, but the power of the performance and the moment’s importance in the narrative is decimated through the emotional distance created by the fact that the viewer is unable to make out her face.
Yet, despite the imperfections, River Wild is easy to watch. It’s the sort of movie that if made in the 80s or 90s (like its predecessor) would have played constantly on Cable or sat on an easy-to-spot shelf at Blockbuster. For the most part, Ketai successfully creates a feeling of claustrophobia. Even if the characters can leave the raft, they cannot leave the danger. Clocking in at 85 minutes, River Wild contains very little fat. The storytelling is muscular, gripping, and unpretentious, without any overtly complicated backstories or annoying nods toward melodrama. Buoyed up by Meester’s strong performance and some truly gnarly bits of violence, River Wild is an effective little potboiler, appropriate for a Saturday afternoon.
River Wild (2023) is now available to watch on Netflix, on digital, and on demand.