The River Wild (1994), directed by Curtis Hanson

Rafting brings to mind the rafting trip that Jim and Huck Finn take on the Mississippi. It is a metaphor for a journey from youth to adulthood, and defines the travelers as they experience adventures along the way. Another memory is a rafting trip I took many years ago with Jan Siegelman, an Atlanta friend and veteran whitewater guide, and my two oldest boys, Dani and Elie, on the Ocoee River in Tennessee.

We encountered serious rapids. My boys handled it well but I fell off the raft three times, once stuck underwater for a short while until Jan freed me from being trapped between the raft and a rock. For me, river rafting was no longer just an exciting wilderness adventure. It represented risk-taking and danger. The River Wild, a thriller about a family rafting trip, viscerally depicts the inherent danger in navigating the rapids, and also describes how a moment of crisis can serve as a defining moment in the life of a family.

Gail and Tom have a troubled marriage. Tom, obsessed with work, is emotionally distant from his wife and young son, Roarke. Gail, whose father is deaf and uses sign language to communicate, looks to her mother for guidance. When Gail tells her that things are hard, her mother responds: “You don’t know what hard is. That’s because you give yourself an out.” Her mother wisely counsels her that marriage is by nature a challenging relationship, requiring consistent effort to endure.

Gail percolates with this wisdom as she begins her rafting trip with her son and husband who, surprisingly, joins them at the last minute. The trip takes a sinister turn when they are joined by Wade and Terry, armed fugitives who pretend to be carefree vacationers on a rafting excursion. Gail and Tom try to find an exit strategy, but it doesn’t work. They are trapped by men who threaten harm to their family if she does not cooperate. Their goal is to compel Gail, an experienced whitewater guide, to take them to safety downriver, where they can escape the law. The problem, however, is that they will have to go through the gauntlet, a section of the river where a rafter has recently died and another was paralyzed. It is a formidable and dangerous task.

The River Wild says a lot about the ties that bind a family. It demonstrates that spouses need to spend time with each other and talk to one another. When there is no dialogue, relationships are hard to maintain. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus is not just a clever maxim. It is a reminder to married couples to spend time trying to understand each other, to appreciate the everyday interactions and kindnesses that form the bedrock of a strong marriage. Moreover, the story reminds parents to be present for their children, to engage them, and celebrate their special moments with them.

Beyond these lessons about family, the film reminds us of the Torah requirement to preserve life and to avoid danger. The Talmud, in fact, states that the rules protecting us from danger are more important than ritual prohibitions. Without life, there is no opportunity to do God’s will. There are even laws that prohibit walking near a crumbling wall or an unstable bridge.

In The River Wild, crisis brings the family together, and forever after defines them as a loving unit, committed to one another for the long haul. Roarke sums it up when he responds to the policeman who asks him what happened. Roarke, smiling broadly, says: “My mom got us down the river and my dad saved our lives.”

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