A River Runs Through It – A Beautiful Mess

Hi! This review is a homework assignment, so that explains the added length and detail—shoutout to Mr. Becknell for introducing me to this tragic, profound, mysterious story. Robert Redford adapted this movie from a short memoir, so this is another combination review. Robert Redford directed the 1992 film adaptation, starring Craig Sheffer as Norman and a very young Brad Pitt as Paul.

Norman MacLean’s 1976 short memoir details his relationship with the mountains of Montana and with his wayward brother Paul. My tagline, “A Beautiful Mess,” refers not to the overall story but Paul. Throughout the story, he is seen as the inferior brother in many ways. Still, he also has a unique relationship to the art of fly fishing, and it is the one thing that keeps him sane and happy in the middle of his alcoholism, immaturity, and lack of direction in life. There are many parallels between this story and Little Women, both being fictionalizations of true American family life.

The story’s first lines are “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” This blend of nature and religion is the anchor of the story and most tangibly seen in Paul, who appears to have no religious beliefs of his own despite being the son of a reverend.

One of the chief achievements of the movie is the cinematography. Redford utilizes nature shots and narration with finesse. The most poignant passages of the story are narrated by Redford and set to picturesque views of Montana mountains and rivers.

The movie adds some details about Norman’s life, one of them being his job offer at University of Chicago and his subsequent quasi-proposal to Jessie Burns. Riding on the high of love, Norman visits Paul in a bar and tells him the good news, about ninety minutes into the movie. Paul offers perfunctory congratulations but clearly has something up his sleeve. Paul ends up bringing Norman to a casino to “celebrate”-rather to manipulate hi brother’s luck in an attempt to get out of debt. When Norman confronts Paul and offers to help, Paul simply repeats in a steely voice “It’s my debt”. In this moment, Paul is somehow both hero and villain. Hero, because he shoulders his own responsibility, toxic as that mindset may be, and villain for manipulating Paul.

The MacLean family fishing trip is the most engaging and profound scene in the story. This scene happens in the third act of the story, and serves as a “final battle on the hero’s journey” for Paul. Norman muses on the day later, saying “At the end of this day, then, I remember him both as a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter.” As my friend said about the scene “It’s almost like he’s catching himself…it’s basically a Grecian fall”

One of the more poignant yet subtle details of Paul’s death is that the bones in his right hand were broken, the hand that held the rod that was his instrument. In addition to Paul’s personal tragic irony, the right hand is seen throughout the Bible as representing authority and power. In the end, Paul lost what little autonomy he had and dies alone.

The last lines about Paul (“He was a fine fisherman….he was beautiful.”) continue to trip me up and make me ponder. Paul is considered beautiful, even though he is an alcoholic, possibly a playboy, and has no real sense of direction in life. Norman may be the narrator of the story but Paul is clearly the hero. In addition to self-destructive and manipulative behaviors, Paul struggles with pride and lack of direction, One could infer that fishing is the only thing that centers him and keeps him sane and this is why he devotes so much focus and energy to the craft.

All in all, Paul is simply a human. He is a man who has nothing but the love of his family, but in that, he has everything. He is an artist with a fishing rod and a degenerate with a beer pint. Paul is many things, but above all, he is the river that runs through this backwoods odyssey

The movie is a beautiful ode to family, religion, nature, and the bonds that nothing can break. 10/10 for amazing actors, fantastic cinematography, and Brad Pitt’s amazing performance. A lovely movie to watch during family night, especially for those who have spiritual families and families that connect via natureq


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