Redford's `River' Serves Better as Nature Study

The film hews perhaps too closely to the Norman Maclean novella

THERE is no denying Robert Redford's love for the timeless beauty of the American landscape. The filmmaking workshop he founded, called the Sundance Institute, is located deep in the Utah Rockies, and his concern for conservation and native-American affairs is well known.

Mr. Redford's new movie, "A River Runs Through It," reflects these interests in its title, its story, and its gorgeous images of Montana's mountainous terrain. Although he doesn't appear in the film, Redford narrates it with obvious respect for the Norman Maclean novella it's based on; and he has directed it with careful regard not only for the characters, but also for the natural settings that surround them.

Unfortunately, that regard is a little too careful in the long run. The movie gets bogged down in its own reverent attitudes, slipping into a static pictorialization that's visually striking but fails to illuminate or enhance the deep feelings Redford wants to explore.

To its credit, "A River Runs Through It" touches on aspects of life that most movies prefer to take for granted or pass over, such as religion and the satisfactions of family life. More important, it acknowledges the complexity of those subjects - showing how hard it can be for a deeply religious father to guide his children toward a responsible life, for instance, and how even a loving family can be undermined by temptations that beset the young.

The main characters are brothers in such a family - their father is a Presbyterian minister - and while one remains true to the values he was taught as a child, the other succumbs to destructive pleasures even while maintaining his ties to the land and the family that nurtured him. The ending is tragic, yet it emphasizes the resilience that a secure upbringing and a wealth of fond memories can help to provide, even in the most trying circumstances.

RIVER Runs Through It" is gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, vividly conveying rural Montana between 1910 and 1935, when the picture takes place. It works better as a nature and historical study than as a drama, though.

Redford moves the action at a leisurely pace that's absorbing at first, but soon becomes poky and even lethargic.

Richard Friedenberg's screenplay also has problems, including the fact that many crucial plot events take place off-screen, which makes it hard to stay fully involved with them. It's clear the movie wants to be tactful, especially when dealing with the sins of the ill-destined brother, but here the virtue of discretion shades into the vice of faint-heartedness.

The performances, meanwhile, are more pleasant than persuasive. Craig Sheffer is credible as the brother who makes good, but Brad Pitt - as the brother prone to fits of excess and violence - never gives us a clue as to why his character has all these problems.

Tom Skerritt doesn't help as their devout father, dishing out the stodginess and stuffiness of a stereotyped Hollywood minister; and Brenda Blethyn is just a cipher as their mother.

"A River Runs Through It" tackles important issues and embraces commendable values. As a bonus, it also serves up the most exquisite trout-fishing scenes in memory. (The closing titles state that no fish were killed in the filming process, but were caught with humane procedures and then returned to their watery habitat to swim another day.) But for all its good intentions, the picture doesn't manage to come alive. Ultimately it has little to teach or reveal about the family dynamics it explores.

* Rated PG for brief nudity and some vulgar language.

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