River Revisited

Nearly 30 years later, I’m finally grasping its message

By Rob Breeding

A confession: I never much cared for “A River Runs Through It,” the film version at least.

I first moved to Montana the year of the movie’s release. Some still consider 1992 to be year zero for the Treasure State, at least as far as fly fishing goes. There’s the BR era (before “River”) and the crowded, Avon-hatch-prone AR era that followed.

Paul Maclean was a breakout role for Brad Pitt, as was his later star turn in another Montana-based historical drama, “Legends of the Fall,” also a not-so favorite of mine.

If there’s a relationship in my tepid response to both films, it’s not the leading man. Pitt is a fine actor and I’ve long enjoyed his work, including the 2019 sci-fi thriller “Ad Astra.” In that film, director James Gray allowed closeups to linger on Pitt’s face, betraying lines that now trace the handsome star’s trajectory toward middle age.

Instead, the commonality is that both films are based on two of my favorite literary works, written by two of my favorite authors: Norman Maclean and Jim Harrison. I first encountered both stories on the page, so when I did see the cinematic versions, I judged them harshly against the masterpieces that served as inspiration.

Both times I sat in the theater deciding if the films were worthy reinterpretations, rather than enjoying them on their merits. That was a little unfair.

I haven’t revisited “Legends,” but I keep coming back to “River.” Each time, my estimation of this film grows.

I watched again last week, occupying some time while I shelter in place. For the first time — maybe because it has been so long since I last read Maclean’s version — I finally gave the movie a fair accounting. I enjoyed it this time more than ever. The joyful boyhood scenes with a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Norman were a hoot. The touching moment when Norman tells Jessie he’s been offered a teaching position at the University of Chicago, but he doesn’t want to go without her, is the kind of unalloyed expression of love all of us hope to experience.

And every one of the magnificent fly fishing scenes rings true.

The tear jerker, however, is the final scene, when a now old, grizzled Norman fishes the Big Blackfoot River alone, while narrator/director Robert Redford reads Maclean’s poignant final paragraph, especially that last line, “I am haunted by waters.”

Give me a coin and I’ll tell you which is the best final sentence of all time: heads it’s Maclean, tails it’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so,” Ernest Hemingway’s tone-perfect conclusion to “The Sun Also Rises.”

As much as Paul’s downfall, brilliantly portrayed by Pitt, dominates “River,” at its core it’s that scene between Jessie and Norman (Emily Lloyd and Craig Sheffer) around which the film pivots. The couple’s romance is the one stable planetary body in a universe orbited by broken people.

Jessie lights up when Norman tells her of Chicago. “What do I think? I think it’s the berries,” she replies, in pure, Montana flapper form.

But it’s the question Jessie asks before that, as they talk of her wayward brother, that steadies the couple’s trajectory against the impact of their reckless brothers, a pair of falling stars, flashing bright, before burning out in the night.

“Why is it the people who need the most help, won’t take it?”

It seems a simple question, one foreshadowing Paul’s fate. But if it’s so simple, why then has it confounded humanity since the basement of time?

There is one thing I’m sure of: the movie didn’t cause the subsequent boom of fly fishing guides rowing out-of-state sports down Montana rivers. “River” simply provided the inevitable, invading horde its rallying cry.

Nearly 30 years later, I’m finally grasping its message.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.