Most critics unsympathetic to A River Runs Through It (1992) harp on a lack of interest in fly fishing. Taken out of context, that is a perfectly understandable sentiment, as I have no abiding love of the past time. However, it is shortsighted as a critique of the movie. There is no denying that the sport is integral to Norman MacLean’s narration (voiced by director Robert Redford) that hovers hauntingly throughout. The first spoken words somberly recite the initial line of MacLean’s autobiographical novella that is the film’s inspiration: “In my family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” To be clear, fly fishing is not used as a metaphor for religion; it is a religious practice, one that allows the participant “to find God’s rhythms” as the art of casting is perfected.
Do not be deterred by the talk of religion or fishing, as the themes are woven into an affecting family drama that tells of the author’s life in rural Mazula, Montana during the early years of the 20th century. The story commences with Norman (Craig Sheffer) and his younger brother Paul’s (Brad Pitt) strict tutelage under their father (Tom Skerritt), a Presbyterian minister. The reverend understood that life’s blessings come through precise effort, which he exemplified through metaphysical inquiry (including church sermons and readings of the Romantic poets) and fly fishing. Norman inherited from his father that endeavors worth undertaking assume a level of artistic expression and “art does not come easy.”
The meat of the plot transpires in the late 1930’s when Norman returns from college out east with family interactions highlighted in a slower paced, less complicated time. Norman, following his father’s intellectual leanings, figures out what to do with his life and meets his future wife. Meanwhile, Paul has made a name for himself at a local newspaper. But the younger brother has a wild streak leading to too much drinking and gambling that sets the stage for the tragedy that would haunt the author for his remaining years. It is not an exaggeration to state that A River Runs Through It was written so Norman could come to terms with the weighty events of his early life. As his father remarks,”Someday, when you’re ready you might tell our family story. Only then will you understand what happened and why.”
It is a testament to the film’s photography stunningly capturing the rugged Montana wilderness that the fishing segments, while not prompting me to take up the sport, engender sympathy for the artistic quality MacLean wrote about. Phillip Rousellot’s Academy Award winning cinematography masterfully portrays casting of the fishing line hovering above rushing water, intertwined with the sun reflecting off the surface. These shots so hypnotically convey the sense of grace through perfected effort Rev. MacLean spoke of that, once they transpire and drop you back into the narrative, you understand the movie’s underlying point: “life is not a work of art.”
Yet Redford’s faithful cinematic adaptation of what Norman’s descendants consider “a love poem to his family” is art. You do not have to be religiously devout or love fishing to relate to the sentiments conveyed by the film. It speaks of our efforts, however difficult or painful, to excel beyond our imperfect nature and the happenstance of life. Through those efforts we cultivate moments of transcendence and strive to understand those we love.
Sony continues their new line of Blu-ray hardcover “book” editions with A River Runs Through It. Enclosed is a 32-page booklet comprised of 30’s era illustrations, production/publicity photos, a couple of pages of the script, a short interview excerpt with Redford from Fly Fisherman magazine, and an essay by Dennis Aig who produced the included making-of featurette. While the extras are not exhaustive and there is sadly no commentary, considering this is the first home video edition of River with any supplements of substance, we should not overly complain. Plus they are all in HD/1080i.
The high-def video is no slouch doing the scenic locales of Montana and Wyoming justice in full 1080p. Remarkable quality abounds throughout the 1.85:1 framed transfer with the brightly lit outdoor shots showing hypnotic detail matched with great color saturation reproducing the film’s natural tones. A modest sheen of grain pervades that maintains a film-like texture with no obvious digital tampering. The main deficit I can detect is that shadowy indoor scenes are slightly soft and less detailed, but this is really only noticeable due to how amazing the majority of the transfer is. I have been enamored with this film’s cinematography for years and have wondered how it would hold up in HD. Suffice to say, I am not at all disappointed!
An English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD (48 Khz/16 bit) surround mix repurposes the original Dolby stereo in a faithful lossless presentation. The film does not have a powerful dynamic range but relies on the peaceful ambiance of nature mixed with Mark Isham’s Celtic themed score to convey the simpler era of MacLean’s Montana. Subtle elements are mixed into the rears but never in a showy fashion keeping the soundtrack anchored in the fronts with dialog that never falters. There really is no LFE response and the only times you get any pop is during the ride down the river, the arrival of the train or the 4th of July celebration. The understated audio is delivered with great fidelity befitting the mood of the film.
Dubbed audio is available in French or Spanish 5.1 Dolby TrueHD and French, Spanish or Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital. Optional subtitles are in English (SDH), French, Portuguese and Spanish.
Deep Currents: The Making of a River Runs Through It (29:59, HD) – Though we do not get a commentary, this is the next best thing. I am skeptical when I see featurettes of this length but am happy to report not a second is wasted on fluff and what is presented is very intriguing. Norman’s daughter and son-in-law provide the history behind the novella and a background on their father including Redford’s acceptance by Norman when everyone else was turned down to make a film adaptation. Robert Redford, Craig Sheffer, the production designer, screenwriter, producer, cinematographer and composer each chime in on their contributions. Some of the most interesting details are Redford working with the MacLean family to fill in details not in the book, how the crew found acceptable river locations for shooting since the actual Blackfoot river was too polluted, casting young unknown actors (River Phoenix auditioned and Brad Pitt was relatively unknown) and Norman signing off on the script but not living to see the movie.
The Blackfoot Challenge: Rescuing a River (15:12, HD) – As mentioned, the Blackfoot was too polluted at the time of shooting to be of use. This featurette details actual shooting locations (with maps) and talks up the groups “Trout Unlimited” and “Blackfoot Challenge” which have worked to reclaim the river over the last 15 years.
Casting A Line: A Beginners Guide to Fly Fishing (6:06, HD) – As stated this covers the basics of fly fishing including comparisons between how it was done in the era of the movie versus modern techniques/technologies. Though I have no interest in the details, it is cool that it was included for those who are inspired by the movie to check out the sport.
Deleted Scenes (16:25, HD) – 16 deleted/extended scenes with an option to play all. These may be of interest to those that have read the novella as many are recognizable from the book. The video quality is all over the place with moments that rival the film immediately followed by shots so damaged and flickering it is hard not to be distracted.
Looping Video Environments (HD) – Four themed videos with shots of the Blackfoot river set against Isham’s score. These will continuously loop after 10 minutes of playing and make for relaxing high-def backgrounds.
The power of A River Runs Through It deepens with repeat viewings and has remained relevant over the years. Robert Redford’s respect and understanding for Norman MacLean’s prose shines through in his visually and emotionally satisfying adaptation. Sony gives the title the deluxe treatment with their new “book” Blu-ray edition and a top notch transfer bringing out the award-winning cinematography. Plus, we finally get some decent extras (though still no commentary). A fabulous film that I look forward to visiting many times in high-def!
– Robert Searle