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MOTHER ROWS BEST

Until now, no one has mistaken the fine-featured, sublimely gifted actress Meryl Streep for a regular on American Gladiators. But in The River Wild, there's not only muscle in Streep's performance, there's plenty of it on her frame, too. In this rip-roaring adventure, the beefed-up star can shoot a set of rapids a lot better than, say, Burt Reynolds. And when the villain gets tough with her, she gets tougher.

Curtis Hanson's film may be the most resounding anthem to American Womanhood in the Nineties since Thelma and Louise cut their mythic swath across the Southwest. If Deliverance was about male bonding and the hazards of machismo in the Seventies, The River Wild is about womanhood, will and the tug of love right now.

It's also as exciting as a plunge over Niagara Falls. Streep stars as Gail, a former whitewater guide from the self-reliant West who's turned in her oars for marriage and motherhood in overcivilized Boston. Things aren't going so well. Gail's workaholic architect husband, Tom (David Strathairn), has grown distant; her pubescent son, Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), has grown confused and divided. Divorce and disorder loom large.

So. How do you save a marriage and start putting a family back together again? How do you find, well, deliverance?

You chance another harrowing journey down the old River of Life. You hang on for dear life all the way to the end of a raging metaphor.

This time, the hazards may be even greater than when Reynolds and Jon Voight made the trip 22 years ago. No inbred hillbillies lie slavering in the woods and, mercifully, there's no banjo music. Still, the willful, resourceful Gail will have to face not only the treacherous dynamics of her own family and the murderous whitewater, but the wiles of a twisted punk named (what else?) Wade. With his eyes narrowed and Wade's small-time resentments honed to an edge, Kevin Bacon brings just the right balance of charm and cold-bloodedness to the part. He's a worthy adversary.

To survive, Gail will have to defeat him and all else. Her husband will have to square off with his demons. The son will have to grow up. They will have to find a language other than the sign language that serves as a clever plot device here.

Director Hanson, who's gone the woman-in-jeopardy route before (in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), may not be Einstein (or Eisenstein), but he knows how to drive a picture seamlessly from crisis to crisis, and this time he upgrades the woman's skills. Meanwhile, cinematographer Robert Elswit captures the beauty and terrors of dramatic locations in Montana and Oregon. After watching The River Wild, you might find yourself reaching for dry clothes.

Bottom line, though, this is Streep's showcase. There's something slightly pat and PC about Gail--writer Denis O'Neill even saddles her with the usual environmentalist rhetoric--but this is one Nature Woman who stirs the blood. She's strong. She's smart. She's tender. She can pilot a raft. By the time Gail, Tom, Roarke, the odious, insecure Wade and his numskull sidekick Terry (John C. Reilly) get to an impossible river test called The Gauntlet, their fates are hopelessly linked.

But it is Streep who has us in her palm. By then we'd go to war with her.
Despite the hardships of the filming, this versatile actress must have felt like some kind of gladiator. Certainly, this is her most bluntly powerful performance. It may lack the shading of Sophie's Choice or even Defending Your Life, but it's undeniably strong stuff. Bone-dry or soaking wet, this is a movie that fairly shouts "Womanhood!" without losing its head--or insulting womanhood's intelligence. That's rare these days, and so are actors with the skill of Meryl Streep.

 
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