All lives revolve around decisions and instances from ones past. In A River Runs Through It (1992), director Robert Redford uses this idea and applies it to a true story of two brothers from Montana, Norman and Paul Maclean (Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt, respectively). Based on the autobiographical novel by Norman Maclean himself, River uses Maclean’s metaphysical beliefs about life and nature to present its many themes. Using a longing score, various film devices, and a story line involving themes of youth, loss, and the pitfalls of pride, Robert Redford crafts a film about the beauty of the past.
The film starts with an elder Norman fishing in the “Big Blackfoot” river. Written by Mark Isham (who won the Academy Award for his work on River), the score is soft and sad. The camera focuses on the elder Norman’s aged hands, tying a fly to his fishing line, and he lyrically describes his past through voiceover (Spoken by Redford himself). These devices tell the viewer that Maclean’s past is something to be longed for, something great and not fully understood that has been lost forever.
Paul and Norman Maclean grew up in a rural, early twentieth century Montana wilderness. Their father, the Reverend Maclean (Tom Skerritt), ran the house with complete yet loving authority. The Reverend home-schooled the two in three subjects: reading, writing, and fly-fishing. Being a very strict enforcer of religious and moral law, the Reverend tried with all his might to instill his Presbyterian beliefs into his children. The difference between Paul and Norman is quickly obvious in the film. Norman, albeit unhappily, embraces his fathers code and standards, while Paul unremittingly combats them. In one symbolic scene, the boys discuss their ambition for the future. Norman wants to be a Minister, and follow in his father’s footsteps, while Paul strives to be anything but. This pattern of Norman accepting, and Paul pushing away, is recurrent throughout the film.
Redford stays in the boys’ youths for a longer period of time than the average director. This is due to the importance of youth within the film. Redford constantly reminds viewers of the boys’ innocence and purity by bathing them in light. In one of the first, and most widely known, scenes in the film the two boys are fishing in the middle of the river. Redford films the shot at the end of the day, as the sun is low in the sky, and the boys are backlit and silhouetted by the sun and its reflection off the water. This shot gives the characters a pure and innocent aura, and helps the viewer subconsciously connect with their youth.
As Norman and Paul grow older, they remain very close. This is meant figuratively and literally, as Redford’s use of Mise-En-Scene helps to establish just how close the relationship between the two is. There are dozens of shots within the film, where the boys (and later men) are standing next to each other completely alone and at an extreme long shot, with the vast Montana...