When director, Curtis Hanson, decided to strap Meryl Streep into an inflatable boat and send her on a whitewater rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho, we officially became indebted to that man.1994’s The River Wild represents just about everything we never knew we wanted out of a film, including marking Streep’s first and only foray into the action genre. She portrays the plucky and determined Gail Hartman, a former guide on the Salmon River with years of whitewater rafting experience under her belt who’s on a rafting trip with her husband, Tom (David Strathairn), son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), and dog, Maggie.
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After making the unfortunate decision to befriend a group of fugitives, Wade (Kevin Bacon) and Terry (John C. Reilly), while on the river, Gail and her family quickly become hostages after Wade realizes that Gail is the only way they’ll be able to make it down the rough waters in one piece — and with their stolen money. It’s an action film turned psychological thriller, striking a perfect balance between the two genres. The River Wild not only proves that rafting isn’t just another casual stroll down a lazy river, but that Streep can easily carry an action movie just as well as she can a classic drama.
Meryl Streep Is a Captive Leader in ‘The River Wild’
When you start to list all the movies that Meryl Streep has starred in, it’s pretty easy to forget that The River Wild even exists, what with Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, and Julie & Julia. Streep might not have gotten the same sort of uproar of praise for this film as she did with The Devil Wears Prada, but she brought her A game in just the same way. Occasionally when a more drama-focused actor takes on an action film, things can feel a little out of place or off with the actor in their new surroundings, but Streep jumped into that raft like she had been doing it for 20 years. Her versatility is unmatched, which almost makes us wonder why she’s stayed away from the genre as much as she has. Perhaps it’s the fact that The River Wild was almost like the perfect storm when it was thrown her way — just the right mix of thriller and action.
It’s definitely an action film, but it also relies heavily on the psychological game going on between Gail and Wade. Throughout it all, she remains a calm, fearless leader of the situation, even while tied up on the raft and leading the pack through the dreaded Gauntlet, a portion of the river that’s known to be fatal if not navigated correctly. At the same time as all of this, the rafting trip was originally meant to serve as a chance for Gail and Tom to reconnect after experiencing some serious strife in their marriage, creating another stake in the equation: the survival of their relationship. In many ways, Gail was fighting through the water in the same way that she was fighting for her marriage, as her ability to make it through the Gauntlet would decide the fate of their future lives together. The thing is, Gail might’ve been the one steering the raft, but without Tom (and without his ability to escape from the fugitives), who knows what would’ve happened to Gail and Rourke at the end of that river.
Just as Gail was fighting for their lives on the raft, Tom was running around the mountain with Maggie to try and figure out just how he could aid his wife in losing (or killing) Wade and Terry. Being the one who was letting down his side of the relationship, Tom experienced a newfound sense of duty (and love) in protecting Gail and Rourke, as he had previously been shutting out his family with the excuse of his demanding job as an architect. Ultimately, Tom was able to pull through and flip the raft with the help of a complex wire rig he constructed, leading to the death of Wade and the freeing of his family.
Kevin Bacon and Meryl Streep Complement Each Other
While Gail and Tom had their own conflict going on behind the scenes, what ended up becoming the more pressing, life-or-death matter was the one between Gail and Wade throughout the film. Bacon played an expert mix of unhinged, ruthless, and creepily kind in his portrayal of Wade, the perfect complement to the more steadfast Gail. It might’ve taken her a while to heed Tom’s gut feeling that something was up with Wade, but once she realized what was going on, she knew just the right buttons to push when it came to dealing with the fugitive.
Because Gail was essential to getting Wade and Terry down the river, she used that fact to her advantage in manipulating the route of the boat in a few attempts to knock the fugitives out as well as in buying herself time to figure out how to escape. This is right where Streep’s packed resume in drama really came in for the kill, as Gail’s hatred for Wade marked an intense shift in her character’s development. What things ultimately come down to is the tension between Wade and Gail, which roars throughout the remainder of the movie.
The best parts of Meryl Streep’s performance were done without words, as her fluctuating demeanor and choice of expressions spoke louder than any word could. Every glare in Wade’s direction and burst of laughter out of sheer terror were placed perfectly by Streep, spotlighting just how many emotions a person feels when faced with a life-or-death situation. Sure, the Hartmans almost lost their lives a billion times on that rafting trip, but ultimately, it brought the family closer together than they had ever been in the past, giving us the largest sigh of relief in our lives in return. But let’s be real here: the Hartmans could have never survived without Gail’s resolve, or Streep’s performance.