Branding itself as a reimagining rather than a traditional remake – and this is one of those cases where that wording does actually tie into the overall mentality – River Wild takes the basic premise of Curtis Hanson’s 1994 thriller The River Wild, a Hitchcock-in-the-great-outdoors chiller that raised its own profile through the inclusion of Meryl Streep’s casting, and layers it with a more violent coating as it raises the nastiness of rage-upon-the-rapids.
The family-in-peril archetype that was embodied by Streep, Joseph Mazello and David Strathairn in Hanson’s film is one of the few crossovers in Ben Ketai‘s thriller here, only it’s the somewhat estranged connection between Joey (Leighton Meester, proving a right heroine throughout) and her brother, Gray (Taran Killam), that centres Ketai and Mike Nguyen Le‘s script. A doctor who hopes a little fresh air and manoeuvring the river rapids of the great American outdoors (it was actually shot in Slovakia) will get her mind off her recent relationship woes, Joey knows she’s in good hands with seasoned river guide Gray, but the inclusion of Trevor (Adam Brody, successful in his depiction of villainy), a recent parolee and childhood friend of the siblings, speaks to her initial apprehension.
Though upset with Trevor’s presence, Joey puts her own feelings aside and instead focuses on reconnecting with Gray and forming a travel bond with Karissa (Olivia Swan) and Van (Eve Connolly), two customers who have paid for Gray’s services. As they navigate the choppy waters by day and get to know each other over campfire and sneaky drinks at night, their adventure seems well balanced, until Van is injured one evening in a supposed tripping accident that leaves her with a fractured skull and in need of immediate medical attention. Trevor claims he saw her trip, but our instincts as an audience are far too high to believe such, and Van confirms our suspicion as she does her best to warn both Joey and Karissa that he was the cause of her injury.
Wasting little time to get his players in the water, Ketai’s River Wild lets character dynamics primarily play out as their trip extends. Whilst Hanson’s film certainly had a violent edge to it in the form of Kevin Bacon’s unpredictable villain, there was more a family protection temperament to its overall psyche. Ketai’s outing feels more grim, with Trevor’s panic around looking immediately guilty unveiling the brutal monster in him in a quicker succession than the somewhat slower, more calculated burn of Bacon’s archetype. It isn’t a surprise that Trevor reveals himself to be the criminal we are already aware he is, but it’s the reveals present in the film’s script that keep us going along for the watery ride, as we navigate Gray’s own distrust of the man he had barracked for, Joey’s defiance in succumbing to his threats, and Trevor’s own increased panic of being caught out for an act of violence he continually claims he wasn’t responsible for.
The rapids themselves play second fiddle to the film’s character situation – we hear about a placement of water known as “The Beast” throughout though – with Ketai favouring chase sequences over on-the-water physicality, which continually assists the film in garnering its own personality. Whilst Hanson’s film is clearly the more replenished of the two in terms of budget, Ketai makes grand use of what he has been afforded, and though not every line of dialogue is supremely polished, the fact that this River Wild aims to be more of a feral, survivalist experience allows it to paddle over any clumsiness it occasionally adheres to.
Aiming to do something different with a premise that’s so often been utilised across a multitude of genres, Ketai and Le have crafted a serviceable thriller that delights in the extreme lengths one will go to for their own self-preservation. With a lean running time (no fat present in its 91 minutes), River Wild stirs up enough action and suspense on its own accord to earn itself a rightful emancipation from the very film it draws inspiration from.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
River Wild is available on Digital, Blu-Ray and DVD from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment from August 1st, 2023 in the United States. An Australian release date is yet to be determined.