The Catcher in the Fly

But Redford launches his film badly. Literally focusing on historic black-and-white still photography accompanied by folksy instrumental music (by Mark Isham) that disturbingly echoes the "Ashooka Farewell," the title sequence is obviously a crib from Ken Burns's The Civil War. Maclean's writing certainly doesn't ask for this reference, and I'm amazed Redford has the face to try something so bargain-basement.

Some scenes are far more contextual in the film. The one and only instance in the film during which the boys fight, and their mother gets in the way, slipping and falling down on the floor, is painful without the tears described in the book. And the interlude with Neal and Old Rawhide is reduced to a bitingly funny vignette, which works splendidly. The news of Paul's death comes as swiftly and shockingly as the severing of a head. Here as elsewhere Redford and Friedenberg stick to Maclean. In the middle of a paragraph about his promise as a fisherman ("`Just give me three more years'") comes this numbing recollection: "When the police sergeant early next May wakened me before daybreak, I rose and asked no questions. Together we drove across the Continental Divide and down the length of the Big Blackfoot River over forest floors yellow and sometimes white with glacier lilies to tell my father and mother that my brother had been beaten to death and his body dumped in an alley." The next image, of the mother gingerly and silently walking up a flight of stairs as Norman looks on, is more moving seen than imagined. The best moments are the eloquent, silent ones.

With one exception, the actors are beautifully chosen. Tom Skerritt's lackadaisical style has matured into genuine subtlety, and his minister evinces a glowing sensitivity and earthy good sense. As Norman, Craig Sheffer comes of age after years of playing a slew of embarrassing high-school anti-heros. The most difficult thing for an actor to do is wordlessly convey thought processes, and this is Sheffer's best gift in playing the voyeuristic (in the best sense of this word) older brother. Emily Lloyd, after being fired from Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, delivers a lovely performance as Norman's Montana sweetheart; this is her best work since Wish You Were Here. But Brad Pitt's bad-boy grin was best left out in the desert after Thelma and Louise; his Paul, glamorized to the limited extent that a trailer-park urchin can possibly be, defines beauty -- of face, mind, soul, and craft -- about as credibly as a stuck pig suggests a state of grace.

By the way, Redford himself performs the voice-over narration, which is intelligent, articulate, and thorough, but hopelessly inappropriate. Since Maclean was an old retired college professor and a septuagenarian when he took up the writer's trade, there is no way to reconcile the trembling, liver-spotted hands we see fixing a fly to a line at the start and finish with the movie star's polished reading of Maclean's seamless prose. Nothing about Robert Redford suggests old age -- except maybe his own face after years under the Utah sun. A River Runs Through It is an accomplished film, but also a frustrating one because of Robert Redford's contrived nobility; one could be watching Ordinary People set in Montana. When it comes down to it, the film is perfunctory in showing us how young Norman came to be haunted by Waters.

Directed by Robert Redford; written by Richard Friedenberg, based on the novel by Norman Maclean; with Brad Pitt, Craig Sheffer, Tom Skerritt, and Emily Lloyd.

Rated PG.
Opens Friday.

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