American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"The River" has some basic problems anyway, but it might have seemed like a much fresher film if it were not, as everybody knows by now, the third of Hollywood's "save the farm" movies released since last September. Like "Places in the Heart" and "Country," it tells the story of brave, stubborn farmers who are determined not to lose their family land to the bankers.
The farmers in this film have their own unique challenge - the farm is next to a river that tends to overflow - but "The River" also has a lot in common with the earlier films, including two crucial scenes that are astonishingly similar to ones in "Country." It is some kind of cosmic bad joke on the makers of "The River," who worked hard and earnestly on what is essentially a good film, that it comes third in the parade.
The movie contains a heartfelt performance by Sissy Spacek as the farm wife; an adequate performance by Mel Gibson as her husband, and a scene-stealing performance by Scott Glenn as the local financier who wants to buy up all the land in the valley, dam the river, and generate some jobs with cheap hydro-electric power. (The crucial flaw in the movie's plot is that Glenn's ideas, which are supposed to make him the bad guy, sound like simple common sense.)
As the movie opens, Gibson is fighting the river and almost is trapped and drowned beneath a bulldozer. We remember the opening scene in "Country," where the son of the family almost is suffocated in an overturned load of grain, and "The River" suffers in comparison: A secondary character might be killed in an opening scene, but hardly the male lead.