Movies don’t get much more peculiar than N.D. Wilson’s “The River Thief,” an oddball redemption story in which the religious overtones jostle uncomfortably with a would-be boys’ adventure tale turned kiddie noir. Some of the Pacific Northwest shots of the Snake River locations are lovely, thanks to the lensing of Andy Patch, but the script by Wilson, a bestselling author of YA and children’s books, strives for a fable-like quality it would be difficult for a veteran director to pull off on screen, and it certainly proves beyond the grasp of a neophyte like the writer.
The title character, Diz, is played by Joel Courtney, who was introduced in “Super 8” in 2011 and went on to other roles, including a stint on the short-lived CW series “The Messengers.” Diz is a footloose teen from a difficult background—his mother is dead, and his father abandoned the family when he was just an infant. Cynical but engaging, he travels down the river stealing whatever he needs or wants, leaving angry victims in his wake. He makes his way to the small river town where Saul (Paul Johannson, of “One Tree Hill”) is a crooked sheriff in league with drug smuggler Clyde (Bas Rutten, of MMA fame). He steals a few items from a pawn shop and then cadges a meal from perky waitress Selah (Raleigh Cain) at the local diner, leaving the irate girl to pay the bill herself. Her grandfather Marty (Tommy Cash, Johnny’s brother), a grieving widower, confronts Diz, but instead of reprimanding the kid, he gives him a sermon about living life as a gift, and invites him for dinner that night.
The upshot of this is that while Marty takes a paternal interest in Diz, Diz falls for Selah, wooing her with a stash of money he’s stolen from Clyde and Saul. Diz’s extravagant expenditures (he hires a limo, for instance, driven by a comic-relief fellow played by David Shannon) fail to win her over, but they catch the eye of the villains, who are soon in pursuit of him. Naturally they decide to use Selah and Marty to force Diz to come to them—and he does.
One thing that can be said of the confrontation that follows is that it diverges from what one would ordinarily expect. But whether that’s a good thing is another question entirely. What it amounts to is more sermonizing than drama, and the narration with which Diz delivers Wilson’s message might not sit very well with viewers looking for a more conventionally satisfying conclusion. It’s even more certain that they will find a big revelation involving Saul at the end way too coincidental to swallow without gagging.
As for the cast, the best work actually comes from the villains, with the veteran Johannson doing professional work and Rutten scowling pretty convincingly. By contrast, Cain and especially Cash are very amateurish. Courtney comes across as a mite less than confident as well, but his boyish enthusiasm is at least palpable. The cast listing, incidentally, shows a number of other Courtneys in the cast; none makes much of an impression.
As noted above, Andy Patch’s camerawork offers some stunning views of the Snake River, but otherwise it’s fairly bland, especially in nighttime action sequences, which fare poorly; but even interiors are sometimes murky. Dane Saxon’s editing is spotty, sometimes just stumbling along, while Eli Beaird’s music is nondescript. A song sung by Cash indicates that vocal talent did not extend to all members of the family.
“The River Thief” would barely pass muster as cable fare. It’s woefully out of place in theatres, or in any venue where payment is required.
Now maybe if you could steal it…no, that would be wrong.