A River Runs Through It (1992)

“Someday, when you’re ready, you might tell our family story. Only then will you understand what happened and why.”

Few films reflect on the mystery and the majesty of life quite like A River Runs Through It. Recollection runs deep here, and while it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, it’s not one without its flaws either. This is an American epic, adorned by the shaky and aged hands of time, so clearly and obviously about a period and a place and the feeling those two jointly create. I’m no fly fisherman, nor have I made the great trek west to the Big Blackfoot River of Montana, but watching this film is an immersive experience. You’re the one casting the lines, hearing the stories, and watching the half light bounce off the canyons and waters. It echoes and lingers and haunts. It’s as intimate as it is biblical.

Nestled in the backwoods of Missoula, Montana is the Maclean family. Father (Tom Skerritt) is a respected Presbyterian minister, preaching the good word to his flock from the pulpit. Mother (Brenda Blethyn) plays the homemaker, cooking meals and washing clothes and watching over her two young boys. We get to see them as children and how they develop into young men, and the bond they share is what makes the film so grounded and authentic. Norman (Craig Sheffer) tends to be quiet, observant, and voices himself through poetic prose. And then there’s Paul (Brad Pitt), the true fisher of men in the picture. His dirty blonde mop lights up most rooms he enters, and his flame burns as bright as a matchbox. The two brothers couldn’t be more different. But they share the same ideals, even if their approaches are dissimilar, and they worship at the altar of their father. One must learn how to fish somewhere, and I see pieces of myself – for better and for worse – in both. They feel real.

Norman goes off to college. Paul becomes a newspaperman. Both are writers in their own right. Storytelling is in their DNA – as it is in anyone who’s been raised religiously – and the best parts of the film come when we get to witness them expressing themselves in unique ways. There’s a stunning sequence where we hear Norman read a love letter he wrote to a one miss Jessie Burns (Emily Lloyd), with the hills and clouds of Montana expertly edited in chorus. She’s smitten and rubs her chin as she takes in the words. Norman finds poetry in his surroundings. But Paul is different, and his vices soon take hold of him. He is gentle but combative, kind and creative but also an addict and a gambler. Norman worries, Paul smiles and offers reassurances, they exchange fisticuffs. Yet there’s always the river, and the hope that a fish will rise. Salvation is available to us in the waters so long as we’re willing to show up on time and express patience.

For how gorgeous it is to behold and how captivating it is from start to finish, A River Runs Through It is imperfect, featuring some scattered decisions and clumsy shot choices. The editing at the big dance where Norman approaches Jessie makes no sense, and some medium shots literally look copied and pasted from another film’s aesthetic. It’s rockier than I remembered. But those moments are just that, and they don’t tarnish a picture that’s otherwise flawless. Mark Isham’s princely score snags us by the ear, Philippe Rousselot’s Oscar winning cinematography locks our eyes, and the sage adaptation by screenwriter Richard Friedenberg gives us something to chew on. Hook, line and sinker. Robert Redford’s film is one that’s about fishing, principal, and how both are vessels for exploring humanity through the promise and the purpose of the great outdoors.

More than anything, A River Runs Through It is a film deeply invested in the emotive and secular power of divine grace, and it shows us this through the love letter it sows to family and the riverbeds running throughout. To experience wonder is a fleeting feeling we chase and passionately pursue, one we can try to capture with a hook and a line and the proper bait, and if we should be so lucky might share with the one’s we love most over a meal of sustenance and substance. After all, as the poet Norman tells us, all good things come by grace. And grace comes by art. And art does not come easy. How true.

“At that moment – I knew surely and clearly – that I was witnessing perfection.”

Rating: 5 out of 5

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