‘River Wild’ Review: A Middling Survival Thriller

River Wild

There is something so intensely invigorating about paddling through rapids. It’s absolutely exhilarating, which makes the open water a highly effective setting for a thriller. The treacherous and unpredictable conditions of whitewater rafting allow a filmmaker to establish an underlying sense of tension independent of the picture’s antagonist(s). On that basis, I was a bit disappointed by the 1994 Meryl Streep-led effort, The River Wild. In spite of an absolutely exceptional cast, the film features characters that are difficult to warm to and fails to deliver a well-rounded villain. In spite of that, the picture still has a certain appeal for delivering a handful of harrowing action sequences and gorgeous cinematography.   

Seeing as the 1994 original doesn’t work as effectively as I wish it had, I think the premise is well-suited to a reimagining. But is co-writer and director Ben Ketai able to improve upon the source material? Well, I won’t go so far as to say that he blows it out of the water. But I will argue that this redux marks a marginal improvement over its predecessor and stands as a reasonably entertaining popcorn thriller. 

River Wild follows river guide Gray (Taran Killam) as he sets off on a whitewater rafting adventure with his sister Joey (Leighton Meester), their childhood friend Trevor (Adam Brody doing his best impression of a tough guy), and a couple of European tourists. Along the way, the siblings come to realize that the treacherous rapids aren’t the only thing they have to fear. It turns out that Trevor harbors some violent tendencies and proves to be erratic, unpredictable, and dangerous. 

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River Wild doesn’t get everything right. But it does an effective job of maximizing tension by combining the aquatic thrills organic to a film about riding the rapids with a series of sinister developments that plague the leads along their journey. The characters’ interpersonal relationships also serve to raise the stakes. Meester and Killam are mostly believable as brother and sister. And the quieter moments where they reflect on past trauma add a layer of authenticity to that relationship, while simultaneously contextualizing the broken dynamic between Trevor and the siblings. As mistrust grows between the group members and the conditions become increasingly treacherous, I found myself sucked in and enjoying the ride. 

In fairness, River Wild is a bit formulaic, never subverting expectations in any meaningful way or daring to do anything we haven’t seen many times before. But it’s an effective execution of an established formula. The thrills and chills come early and often, plus the tension is a permanent fixture throughout. 

Aside from being a bit predictable and playing it safe more often than not, my only other critique is that Adam Brody seems miscast as Trevor. He doesn’t quite have the range to effectively feature as an ominous antagonist. And his lack of menace isn’t helped by the application of a series of unconvincing stick-on tattoos that have been haphazardly applied all over his body. He is serviceable in the role and doesn’t detract from the action. But he never becomes his character; Brody never sheds his skin enough to make the audience forget that he’s still Seth from The O.C.   

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It’s hard to compare this film directly to its 1994 predecessor because they are two very different iterations of the same basic premise. But I did find the characters in this redux to be scripted slightly more effectively and I did enjoy this reimagining a bit more than the feature upon which it is based.  

All things considered, I found River Wild moderately enjoyable. It’s fast-paced, with some harrowing action sequences. It isn’t going to change the cinematic landscape as we know it but it’ll definitely keep you entertained for the duration. 

The film is currently available on VOD. I’m not sure I would say you have to go rent it immediately. But Netflix subscribers can stream it for free on the platform (as of the publication of this post). So, if you have a membership, temper your expectations and give it a shot. I think River Wild is worth the time investment for anyone that has a soft spot for an escapist thriller.  

  • ‘River’Wild'


It’s not all that creative or revolutionary but ‘River’ Wild’ manages to be thrilling enough to warrant a watch.

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