Wild River August 23, 2016
She sits on her creaky wooden porch rigidly. Spite rumbles in her eyes, her dignity holding on for its life as it awaits its dissolution. She is Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), eighty-three years old and the matriarch of a large family detached from modern society. Her entire life has consisted of maintaining her ancestors’ prized property, Garth Island, which sits at the center of the raging Tennessee River. Leaving it is the last thing on her mind. But it’s 1934, and the destructive body of water is hell bent on swallowing the patch of land whole. Eviction is inexorable. But Ella, a woman of pristine resolve, won’t budge, despite her knowing that she’ll be forced off Garth Island whether she wants to be or not.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has had it with her enduring stubbornness. To both bolster the economy of the surrounding area and also preserve the livelihoods of the owners of in-jeopardy properties, they’ve built a hydroelectric dam harnessing the faculty of the unforgiving river. Support is near unanimous: all vulnerable landowners have sold their homes to the government in preparation for flooding, and the public is eager to see the upturning effects it will have on their lives. But Ella, along with her not-so-literally unsinkable clan, refuses to move. In frustration, the owner of the TVA has quit, destroyed by the stress of having to concern himself with saving people who don’t want to be saved.
But giving up is not an option for the governmental conglomerate — negative publicity will only deter the good they’re trying to do — and so Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift), a compassionate professional type, is flown to Tennessee in a desperate attempt to finish what the previous supervisor could not. Unaware of the extent of the situation’s difficultly, he mistakenly believes that persuasion is merely a matter of delivery and wording.
But only a half-day into his stay does he come to understand that the process of removal is hardly going to be an easy endeavor. Things are made additionally challenging by his eventual falling in love with Ella’s granddaughter (Lee Remick), and by his discovery that racial segregation has delayed the vacating of Garth Island, too.
With its fascinating moral complications and empathetically mounted characterizations, 1960’s Wild River is such a substantial slice of life because its gaze is all-seeing. Not a character, even a despicable one, has shallow rationale accompanying their actions. Seen are individuals that are comprehensibly contradictory, feeling, and deep-rootedly real.
The film isn’t so much trying to tell a story as it is determined to voyeuristically watch as disparate people react to a ripplingly affecting discord. There are no outright answers to Wild River's ethical ponderings, but its astute observations and thoughtful performances render it as a complex, forward-thinking drama.
Acting as a new beginning for era-defining filmmaker Elia Kazan, who was coming off an unbelievably fruitful ‘50s (built up by a sequencing of inarguable classics like A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and Baby Doll), Wild River is a minor (but cultishly venerated) work within his oeuvre. It’s a précis of his almost off-handed ability to crank out starkly humanistic films attractive in their visual cues and their charged performances. It lacks the inner-demon lashings of Waterfront and Eden — though that could just be because Clift is understated where Brando and Dean were frantic — but its way of involving us in its traumas is comparably formidable.
As Wild River’s protagonist, Clift is impeccably cast, though unsaid savvy on the part of Kazan could have something to do with it, too. Just three years before the film’s release, amid production of Elizabeth Taylor co-starrer Raintree County, Clift’s face was gnarled by a car accident that left behind facial puffiness and partial paralysis. Already tortured by the secrecy revolving around his sexuality, the hampering of his beauty further muddled his self-confidence. For the rest of his life, to be cut short by a long-in-the-making heart attack less than a decade later, he unwisely tried to drink away the pain that tormented him both psychologically and physiologically.
We can see that suffering make its way into the performance. Gone is Clift’s once crucial expressionistic skill set, but retained is the encapsulating power of his eyes, which are able to display the ins-and-outs of an everyman’s emotional palette better than any student of the Method ever could. Since Chuck is the most conflicted character of Wild River, tugged at by his responsibilities to represent the TVA, by his love for Remick’s Carol, by his empathy for Ella, and by his ethical doubts, those delicate internal reverberations accentuate his performance.
The film’s other performers are just as fine-tuned. Remick is excellent as Carol, a mother of two who lost her husband at the age of nineteen. And Van Fleet, forty-eight but made to look elderly, brings pedigree to a role that begs to be portrayed in caricature style. Superb is the way Carol and Chuck’s romance is not out of moviedom sexiness but out of what-are-we-waiting-for tenderness, and how Chuck never condescends Ella, who could be seen as staunchly obstinate but ends up being the most moving character of Wild River.
But what I like best about the film is how it’s so capable of seeing so many sides without losing its credibility as a multi-faceted character study. Its representations of corporate dedication could be seen as evil, and its pedestaling of reputation maintaining could be seen as rote. And yet it stays humanistic no matter the angle we’re regarding it from. It’s a quiet showcase of an intimate drama, a career high for Clift, Remick, and Van Fleet, and it's a luscious nocturne of a piece from the maestro that conducted it. A