“You see things you thought were clues. Turns out they weren’t.”
Set in the frozen landscapes of a wintery Haddan, Massachusetts, The River King casts actor Edward Burns as small town policeman Abel Grey. Abel and his partner are called out to investigate a report of a body found in a frozen lake. The body is Gus Pierce, a student from an exclusive prep school located on the outskirts of town. Gus was a loner who never really fit in, and his one close friend was fellow student Carlin Leander (Rachelle Lefevre). Teachers at the school, with the exception of Betsy Chase (Jennifer Ehle) act as though the police investigation is a nuisance. But to make matters worse, Abel is railroaded into accepting Gus’s death as a suicide.
I like Edward Burns. Can’t explain it, but there’s just something about his screen presence. His performances are sincere and believable, but apart from that he is one of America’s directors who’s still trying to say something outside of the Hollywood machine. In The River King, Burns is excellent, and the fact that the story is told through his troubled eyes bolsters the film tremendously. With a subtle and typically low-key performance, Burns conveys discomfort and nagging doubts throughout an investigation marred by class and corruption. The film slides into clichés when uncovering the nasty little frat boy initiation ceremonies, but then that sort of silliness is clichéd no matter how you look at it.
While corruption rules, and an old-boy network effectively ensures that cover-ups continue, the film slides away from the less subtle predictability of plot, and instead lands squarely on the issue of the weight of guilt. Guilt and its long-term consequences lead Abel to make a decision, and whether or not he has the ‘right’ to make this decision is at the heart of this beautifully photographed film. Incidentally, the photography is from Paul Sarossy (The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction). Frozen landscapes covered in snow and sub-zero temperatures reflect some of the characters’ frozen emotions. Both Abel and his father carry a burden of guilt, but they refuse to examine it and they have chosen to ignore it for various reasons. The death of Gus Pierce, however, forces Abel, at least, to confront his guilt and grief over the death of his brother.
As it turns out, there’s a significance to Abel’s first name, and this is an issue the plot chooses not to explore directly, but the subtext exists for those who catch the Abel/Cain connection. The River King wisely leaves this reference and its inferences for the audience to catch. Supernatural elements are also weaved through the story, but again, this is delicately done, and so we never really know if these moments really exist or are simply ghosts of the past.
Abel’s final decision is beautifully played, and I couldn’t help but compare this to the preachy deliverance of a fateful decision in Ben Affleck’s film Gone Baby Gone. Towards the end of Gone Baby Gone, Casey Affleck and Morgan Freeman hash out their respective moral positions ad nauseam in a scene that’s unbelievable, heavy handed and far too lengthy. The River King leaves the moralizing and the argument as to whether or not Abel has the ‘right’ to assume the responsibility of his actions to the viewer. Director Nick Willing obviously thinks his audience is intelligent enough to work out the intricacies of Abel’s behaviors for ourselves. Personally I prefer subtlety, and so I appreciate The River King’s low-key style, even if it has a less-than perfect story. Based on a novel by Alice Hoffman.