Producers: Ogden Gavanski, Daniel Kresmery and Anne-Marie Roberge Director: Ben Ketai Screenplay: Ben Ketai and Mike Nguyen Le Cast: Leighton Meester, Taran Killam, Adam Brody, Olivia Swann, Eve Connolly, Matt Devere, Nick Wittman, Courtney Chen and Kiel Kennedy Distributor: Netflix
Less a remake of the starry 1994 film than a simpler, bare-bones take on the premise of malevolence during a white-water rafting trip, “River Wild” is an efficiently-made potboiler about a berserk killer that’s notable only for its location (in this case, somewhere in Croatia, where it was shot, though Eastern Europe is standing in for the Pacific Northwest). It offers some energetic action on the river and a few sequences of nasty violence, but is tamer than the title would suggest.
The protagonist is Joey Reese (Leighton Meester), whom we meet as she drives to the shore where her brother Gray (Taran Killam) operates a small-scale rafting business. Joey’s going to join him and two paying customers, Karissa (Olivia Swann) and Van (Eve Connolly), on a trip down river, but she’s unpleasantly surprised to find that there will be a fifth passenger—Trevor (Adam Brody), an obviously seedy pal of her brother, just released from prison, with whom, we eventually learn, Joey shares an unhappy past. When Trever greets her effusively, she quickly pulls back.
But rather than do the smart thing and leave, Joey follows through on her plan to go on the trip. At first things seem okay, if tense, but it’s not long before Van is seriously injured in a fall that was not a simple accident. Since their cell phones are, of course, out of service, Gray and Trevor leave the girls behind to go to a ranger station to call for a helicopter rescue, but when Walt (Matt Devere), the officer on duty, tries to use the radio, Trevor loses it and he winds up dead. He forces Gray back to the raft and takes everyone prisoner, forcing the Gray and the two surviving women—Van having become another victim—to take him north to Canada. It’s a journey that means crossing some mean rapids and navigating through waterfalls.
Apart from a sequence in which a helpful hiker (Nick Wittman) attempts to rescue the hostages from Trevor’s clutches (not very well staged, and short in such darkness that what’s happening is difficult to discern), the remainder of the film is confined to sequences of the group going down the river, interrupted by a few fights over knives and guns that leave some of the characters seriously bruised and bloody but able to soldier on as best they can, and Van on the run. There’s also a revelation about why Gray is so protective of Trevor even though the guy gets more and more deranged as the plot proceeds.
Eventually Joey and Gray reach the rapids with Trevor in hot pursuit in a kayak he’s stolen after killing its barely-glimpsed rider. The three tussle one last time. It’s a saving grace that at least it doesn’t fall into the trap of so many thrillers today, of a last-minute resurrection. But that means that the conclusion is a mite underwhelming.
The film is shot by cinematographer Gevorg Gev Juguryan in tones of gray and green that don’t afford much visual pleasure, but the locations are impressive enough, especially in the rapids at the close (though, frankly, the last shot of steep waterfalls looks as though it might have been imported from elsewhere). Nóra Talmaier’s production design amounts to very little, but Ben Callahan’s editing squeezes as much tension out of the thin narrative as possible. Tristan Clopet’s score aims at upping the sense of urgency.
What suspense is achieved, though, depends most on the performances, since Ben Ketai’s direction too often goes a bit limp in the scenes between the action moments. Meester is convincingly desperate, and handles the considerable physical demands well. Her real-life husband Brody seethes menacingly, and their scenes together certainly would have given them the opportunity to vent over any disputes they might be having off-screen. Killam and Swann, the only two others who have much to do, are fine in parts that demand more in terms of exertion than acting, which comes down mostly to glancing at one another to convey their fear over Trevor’s raving or their suffering over their loses and injuries.
At under ninety minutes, “River Wild” is certainly more compact than its forebear, which clocked in at nearly two hours but had a more complicated scenario (as well as more confident direction by Curtis Hanson). (It also had the definite article in its title, while the present movie seems to be inconsistent on that point, sometimes being advertised with it but lacking it on the final print.) But its relative simplicity means that mere brevity doesn’t save it from repetition; the script has to scramble to figure out how to keep the plot percolating until feature length has been attained.
In the end, the movie is okay, but less than the nail-biter it might have been. It just doesn’t stick with you, like the best thrillers; by the time that last helicopter view of that waterfall shows up, it’s likely you’ll already have forgotten the whole thing.