After seizing the cinema like a born legend in the 70s, scaling the heights of drama in the 80s and spoofing herself in the early 90s, what was there left for Meryl Streep to do?
<-- Streep and her now grown daughters Louisa, Grace and Mamie in 2006
The fourth and least impressive act of Streep's career has no obvious narrative: How does one connect the time frame or the movies which began with the critically shunned period epic The House of The Spirits (1993), stretched through a series of hit and miss dramas and ended with a two year absence from the screens but for her disembodied voice in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)? Let's call this fourth act "Family Time".
Streep's only son, the musician Henry Wolfe, was born in 1979. Every few years afterwards she and Don Gummer had baby girls and their last, Louisa, was but a bun in Meryl's oven when the Oscars celebrating Streep's Postcard From the Edge performace rolled around. With four young kids at home during the '90s, Streep's attention were obviously divided. Happily for her fans, Streep must enjoy working, as she kept squeezing movies in. But The Bridges of Madison County (1995) was the only film to strike with the kind of critical and cultural force that Streep films had previously enjoyed.
I've never known quite what to make of what may well be the most atypical movie in her filmography, Curtis Hanson's The River Wild (1994). I don't think it works but it tries.
Streep plays Gail Hartman, a teacher at a school for the deaf who was a river guide in her youth. She takes her young son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello) on a white water rafting trip for his birthday. Her husband Tom (David Strathairn) tags along but things don't go as planned. Something is definitely not right with two fellow explorers Wade (Kevin Bacon) and Terry (John C Reilly) they meet along the way. The River Wild is a thriller/adventure but it's also a family romance of sorts about a mother, father and son falling back in love with each other. Despite its threatening plot, Wade being a killer with eyes for Gail, The River Wild is safe for families. It's admirably much less violent than an episode of most any TV procedural.
The River Wild is nice to look at with its wide wide screen, handsome cast and outdoors setting but it might be too nice. Everything about it seems to cry out "I mean well. Like me!" No, no. That's too strong a description. There's no crying out, which would be too aggressive for this mellow fellow. He (Mr. Wild) seems to walk sideways towards you, indecisively. Finally he works up the courage to politely tap you on the shoulder. "Excuse me. I don't mean to bother you but might you enjoy me? Give me a try. I'm physically fit. I'm outdoorsy!" One might say the film should be retitled The Stream Meek or maybe The Creek Distracting. While highly watchable, it's never much more or less.
To be frank, the movie could stand to be a little ruder.
Were one to anthropomorphize the movie, it might walk and talk exactly like Tom Hartman and look exactly like Tom's vessell David Strathairn who is wonderfully attractive but always in an everyman way. Tom Hartman can find his inner athlete/hero when he needs him (the film neatly, too neatly, lets both husband and wife be the hero) but at heart he's more of a 'sit back and observe' guy. Even when his wife is with strangers getting flirty, he's reluctant to get dirty.
The River Wild would work a lot better as a thrilling adventure if it tried to channel Wade instead. He happens to have Kevin Bacon's face instead, improbably attractive but also believably sinister, rather like Mother Nature herself come to think of it. The movie almost ridesto the dangerous rapids it needs to live in a couple of times, particularly in regards to the obvious sexual tension between Wade and Gail. Mostly, however, it's content to glide through still waters. I don't mean to say that there should be more violence (I hate the gratuitous shooting of nice guy park ranger Benjamin Bratt, looking so young!) but that the filmmaking ought to be feel alert with the fear of it, especially in regards to the natural violence which the title promises.
There's a scene early in the film where Gail complains to her mother about her rocky marriage. Streep squeezes her hands together in frustration
I'm sick of the whole -- everything has become unbelievably hard.Streep could just as well be talking about the difficulties a superb actor might face when trying to complicating a very ordinary character for the screen. And here, at last, is my principle reservation; I think Streep is the wrong actor for the movie.
I admire her efforts within, especially in her scenes with Strathairn (a Silkwood alum!) where she allows for intriguing reads as to what she does and doesn't still feel for her husband of many years. Elsewhere, particularly towards the climax, when logical though must depart and pure emotions take over, she is less ambiguous but also much less compelling. I can't help but think that what the movie needed was a more primal less controlled actor at its center. Kate Winslet was the wrong age of course but she's the right example, tonally. She isn't Streep's technical equal but her emotional force can be elemental and I think the movie needs super charged direct feeling, rather than nuanced emotional beat. Perhaps Jessica Lange? The River Wild has a simplistic story and predictable beats. It needs a thunderstorm actress rather than a complicated storm front.
For all that I think Meryl was the wrong choice for The River Wild, it's fun to see her looking so different: sunny, blonde, next door neighbor pretty or, perhaps, so much like herself. The sight of Meryl Streep looking just like Meryl Streep is a fairly uncommon occurence in the bulk of her filmography. Even if she's not inherently what the movie needed, she's still definitely able. She's still...
Next: The 1995 and 1998 Oscar races and definitely a look back at 1999's Music of the Heart, which happens to be the only Oscar-nominated Streep performance that I didn't see in initial release (apart from those before my moviegoing time, that is) and have still not seen. Stay tuned.