1.1 and 1.2 Magus; Marbeley
Time was, waterborne adventure and thriller stories cast their characters out on the ocean. From Odysseus to Long John Silver, via the Ancient Mariner and Captain Ahab, the thrill of the sea has been its openness, the capacity for adventure when the characters can go almost anywhere. Rivers are different. Rivers are claustrophobic. With rivers, you have only two choices, forward, or back.
Joseph Conrad knew this. In setting Heart of Darkness on a river, he was able to use it to support his narrative while creating a sense that his characters were being drawn towards something. There was something awful waiting for Marlow, but he had no choice but to keep following that constant, inexorable stream towards Kurtz.
The makers of The River (Paranormal Activity‘s Oren Peli and Michael R. Perry) are clearly hoping to use the same natural dread. Here, Bruce Greenwood is the Kurtz. He reprises his Star Trek role as father figure in jeopardy, playing the Steve Irwin-esque TV adventurer-cum-naturalist Emmet Cole who, twenty years into a successful career, goes missing somewhere along the Amazon. He is presumed dead, but thrillers being what they are, clues remain to suggest that he is alive and well. Well, alive at least. His wife and adult son, Lincoln, take a boat upriver to find him and bring a TV crew along for the ride. In-universe, this is handwaved by establishing that the TV company is funding the expedition and interested in making a follow-up show on Emmet, and for the show we’re watching, it allows for a ‘found footage’ device to be used.
The opening two episodes, shown as a double-bill and available via iTunes in the UK, are patchy, but not without promise. The exposition, which is necessary, is handled somewhat clumsily. While good use is made of fake news clips and footage from The Undiscovered Country, Emmet’s show-within-a-show, the characters are established rather amateurishly, with the dialogue feeling rather forced. We know, for example, that Emmet loves his wife because on looking at a fluorescent blue dragonfly he tells us that the only thing he “knows this blue in nature are my wife’s eyes first thing in the morning”. His son’s angsty demeanour all too often slips into ‘you weren’t there for me, mom’ rants. Yes, he and his mother have issues, yes the boat’s pilot is an angry man overprotective of his daughter, yes, the bodyguard is a badass, we get that. But they’ve got eight episodes on a small boat to let it show through; we don’t need to see it all in the first fifteen minutes.
Sadly, on the strength of the first episode, fifteen minutes may be enough. These characters are rather shallow and it is difficult to invest much concern in them, a major problem for a horror piece. The central mother/son relationship falls flat, it is angst by numbers and the son acts far too much like a whiny teenager for us to accept him as the show’s lead. On a generous interpretation, this is a character flaw, not necessarily a writing one, and watching him develop will add a satisfying extra dimension to the show’s arc, as long as the writers have the confidence to let him grow. Unfortunately at this early stage, it creates more melodrama than horror.
More work is also required for Jahel, the mystic daughter of the boat’s captain. Her role seems to be little more than walking spirit guide, muttering mysteriously in Spanish about ‘ghost friends’ and ‘soul traps’. Although she is given the show’s funniest line, this is a little throwaway, and she soon reverts to the mystical intonations. We’ll need to see something more from her before she is seen to be anything other than a stock ‘magical ethnic’ character.
Kurt Brynildson, the bodyguard is handled much better. He is given very little backstory, just right for this stage of the show. The bits we do see are perfect and we end up knowing enough not to trust him, but not so much that we know why we shouldn’t. Likewise Quitely the TV producer and AJ the lead cameraman. There are definitely a few surprises in store for and from these characters and they genuinely piqued my interest.
It’s not just the characters. The show’s key device of using found footage feels forced. It is a conceit with a purpose, providing a ‘third eye’ so that characters may be in jeopardy, but it is not sustained well enough. Some of the scenes require a colossal suspension of disbelief to convince you that they would have been filmed. Yes they are making a TV show, but would they really film Tess Cole walking into a bar to tell her son that his dad’s safety beacon had been found on the day of his funeral? At least the cameras are acknowledged in that scene, later ones, particularly between Lincoln and obvious love interest Tara, are conducted as though as though the characters don’t know they are being filmed. It is a nagging inconsistency that needs to be ironed out swiftly.
In addition, as the majority of it is presented as professionally filmed, it doesn’t feel like found footage –it’s too slick and well made. It even has some post-production features such as captions and subtitles that would have required the input of the characters who were actually there. Would some editor in a studio know that, for example, they were entering the boat at 10:37 without consulting a ‘survivor’? While there is some use of unmanned footage, such as from security cameras, this is not really enough to sustain the device. The authored nature of the footage also removes a layer of objectivity that would have added a greater sense of danger. The horror would be made more intense seen through the cold unblinking eye of a CCTV camera, while a more patchwork collection of footage would help to convince the viewer that something awful is going to happen to these people.
Watching it, I found it better to ignore the found footage and enjoy the storyline for its own merits. I wouldn’t be too surprised if subsequent seasons –and there is just enough to sustain multiple seasons- see this conceit jettisoned.
However, once it gets going, The River manages its thrills well, using misdirection and darkness to their full advantage. It could do with more of them, however, and a better balance between the quiet reflective moments and the key horror set pieces. The show is establishing its characters, but we’re not seeing this done carefully enough to warrant all these scenes of Lincoln talking about how his dad was never around when he was a kid. I would rather see his character emerge through his response to his current situation than through heartfelt soliloquies and schmaltzy flashbacks.
That said, the scariest moments are the subtle ones –the dolls in the second episode making a particular point of this. This episode is better overall, combining tension with some genuine creepiness and a great use of the natural dread of the darkling jungle. It also hints at a mixture of monster-of-the-week episodes and a longer story arc, a device that has served cult television very well and which will help to maintain a regular dosage of actual horror for the viewer without dragging too much of a central mythology behind it.
So, despite some early niggles, The River has a lot going for it. Its central premise is strong and there are plenty of opportunities for thrills, both mystical and mundane. The characters have been forced upon us but they have room to grow, and stuck together on a tiny boat, there is plenty of dramatic scope for them to do so. There are clues and red herrings a plenty in the show’s central mystery and plenty of river to go. We are still a long way from Meestah Kurtz here.