Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It is set in the early 1900’s “at the junction of great trout rivers in Missoula, Montana” against the backdrop of the Bitterroot Mountains in the northwest of the state. It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful setting for such a story, and it is to the film’s credit that the setting isn’t at all superficial. Far too often, films like this are replete with visually pleasing shots of nature that accomplish little more than distract from an otherwise banal storyline. That other early 90’s release set in Montana, Legends of the Fall comes readily to mind. The settings of such films are beautiful, no doubt, but mere window-dressing.
In the first scene, Norman (as the narrator) describes Sunday afternoon walks with his father and brother along the Blackfoot river. “It was there,” the narrator says, “that [the Reverend Maclean] felt his soul restored and his imagination stirred.” We look on as the Reverend bends down to pick up a flat stone. “Long ago rain fell on mud and became rock. Half a billion years ago,” he says, “But even before that, beneath the rocks, are the words of God.” We are told, here at the beginning of the film, that water is more than water, that a river is more than a river, and that the rocks under the water are more than rocks. Standing in the middle of the river means standing on the words of God. Being in its presence brings restoration and life. There is a mystery here that the Reverend Maclean is trying to explain; nature, specifically the river, is sacramental, a means of grace.
The act of fly fishing, too, is more than it appears. A lengthy quote is revealing. Norman says “Paul and I probably received as many hours instruction fly fishing as we did in all other spiritual matters. As a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a damned mess, and that only by picking up God’s rhythms, were we able to regain power a beauty. To him, all good things, trout as well as eternal salvation, come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy. So my brother and I learned to cast Presbyterian style, on a metronome. He began each session with the same instruction: casting is an art that’s performed on a four count rhythm between ten o’clock and two o’clock.” Like nature, fly fishing is a type of sacrament, a way of approaching God.
It is interesting to consider how these two visual ideas alter our view of each character. When Norman, the Reverend Maclean, and Paul wade into the water, they are, if the Reverend Maclean is to be taken seriously, standing on the words of God. Does it change how we view the scene? It should. Such moments become brief periods of sublime beauty, magnificent respites for lives that are otherwise known for frustrating uncertainty and difficulties wrought by sin.
The audience’s opinion of Paul is perhaps the most affected by such scenes. Paul, the younger brother who “simply knew he was tougher than anyone alive,” is classically head-strong and irresponsible. And, like any character with this special type of hubris, he is destined for a speedy downfall. Even so, his prodigality is nearly admirable, or if not admirable then at least likable. This is due in large part to how he is presented while fishing.
In one scene, Norman describes what it was like watching his brother fish in an entirely different style than the one their father taught. “For the first time,” Norman relates, “Paul broke free of our father’s instruction, into a rhythm all his own.” On reflection, we realize that this doesn’t merely have to do with fishing. Rather, we should see that Paul has lived his whole life in his own rhythm. When that is realized, this particular scene connects Paul’s personality with his way of approaching God. Fishing, as already mentioned, is presented as a sacrament. At the risk of sounding crude, Paul’s unique, beautiful and successful style of fishing allows us to understand that there is, to borrow from the Reverend Maclean’s words, not only one rhythm by which we can regain power and beauty. Paul, for all is faults, is still made in the image of God. The same singular rhythm that, when fishing, made him, as the Reverend says, “beautiful,” was also the cause of his death.
A River Runs Through It is, at its most basic level, Norman’s tender and poignant reflection on a brief period of his life through which he attempts to understand the life and tragic death of his younger brother Paul. He fails. He doesn’t understand Paul much more, if at all, by the end than he did at the beginning. But he also learns that the right way to interact with those with love is not to understand, as if we even could understand a being made in the image of God. The proper response is love.
The purpose of the film, I think, is summed up beautifully in some of the greatest words ever spoken on film. In his final sermon before he died, the Reverend Maclean says, “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often that not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely, without complete understanding.”