“It all amounts to an 84 minute long anxiety attack, as a tense mood begins immediately and rapidly ratchets up, hitting a fever pitch early and then staying there without relief.”
by Ken Bakely
A long-dormant, traumatic secret is a lethal weapon. To those privy to its contents, it is intensely guarded information, and the idea of such a story or a truth seeing the light of day is intolerable. They will go to irrational lengths in order to keep the traumas of the past hidden away. Matt Sobel’s Take Me to the River shows us what happens when someone stumbles upon this Pandora’s box and causes everything to unravel, even if doing so unwittingly. The best thing that the film does for us is to keep us in the dark. The plot centers around two major events, and we never quite discover what happens in either one. Dialogue is sparse, often coded, and loaded with pauses which speak for miles. The setting – sunny, open, rural – leaves the characters without a place to hide. It all amounts to an 84 minute long anxiety attack, as a tense mood begins immediately and rapidly ratchets up, hitting a fever pitch early and then staying there without relief.
It all begins when seventeen-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller) and his parents, Cindy (Robin Weigert) and Don (Richard Schiff), make the long drive from their home in California to a farm in Nebraska, where Cindy’s family is gathering for a reunion. Ryder is gay, and his mother advises him to keep this fact under wraps from her deeply conservative kin. Yet Ryder, with a streak of adolescent rebellion, decides not to go gentle into that closet, and makes a couple of interesting fashion choices – tight red shorts, neon-yellow sunglasses, and a bright V-neck t-shirt. As expected, he stands out among his more neutrally dressed relatives.
However, Ryder’s nine-year-old cousin Molly (Ursula Parker) is quite fascinated by this outfit, and finds him quite interesting in general. One day, she convinces Ryder to accompany him out to an old barn nearby, while the rest of the family remains at the farmhouse, socializing. A few minutes later, they return. Molly is running quite quickly. The hem of her dress is stained with blood. She is in pain. Her father Keith (Josh Hamilton), the owner of the farm, immediately ushers his daughter inside for further examination. He lashes out at Ryder, who claims that he has no idea what happened, and that Molly began crying out of nowhere. Despite the confusion, one thing is clear rather quickly – this event, regardless of what actually occurred, has reawakened decades-old wounds, and sparked suppressed animosity and fears. When Keith’s erratic, hot-and-cold temper is taken into consideration, it becomes anyone’s guess where this will all end up.
Take Me to the River is at its most effective when it’s clear something is being left out. Sobel’s note-perfect emulation of a thick cloud of secrecy makes strained smiles and calm pleasantries a petrifying currency. Awkward conversations, filled with seconds of painful silence between questions and answers, demonstrate a rising sense of animosity and distrust that no one dares acknowledge. Robin Weigert, as Cindy, is especially aware of this. Her performance is a measured slow-drip of calm blankness. Nothing, not even the most unsettling of outbursts from her brother, draws sustained emotion from her. Everything is fine, or at least that’s what she wants everyone else to believe. The screenplay is agonizingly effective at tightening the vise-like grip it holds on the viewer. Logan Miller’s Ryder is a swirling set of contradictions, and for the character, this is exactly what’s needed – emotionally naïve, yet aware of the consequences at hand; furious at being accused, yet too scared to address his accuser head on after the initial event has passed. And Josh Hamilton’s turn as Keith is a messy set of bold question marks. What is pure rage in one scene turns into a grin and a firm handshake in the next. This is intentional on Hamilton’s part, to show us the degree to which he is attempting to deny himself some kind of internal catharsis.
Sobel gets a lot of mileage out of another stylistic choice made – the simple contrasting of a wide-open physical setting with a claustrophobic thematic setting. He, alongside cinematographer Thomas Scott Stanton, intercut the film with wide nature shots, allowing us to soak in lingering shots of the Midwestern plains. Yet interiors are increasingly framed in urgent, tight medium compositions and locked-down two-handers. It’s this juxtaposition which also contributes to an eternal sense of urgency within Take Me to the River, where each link of the story could effectively transition into its own climax. Editor Jacob Secher Schulsinger takes this a step further, as he cuts each scene with workmanlike precision, giving us a direct in and a direct out, but nothing further.
There is only one real detraction here that impedes upon the movie’s qualities, and that is Sobel’s inability to add the layer of character depth that he seems to strive for. His minimalism in approaching the story seems to come at the cost of truly realizing the dynamics between these people. However, it’s worth noting that the raw strength of the performances in Take Me to the River do a lot in terms of filling in some of the blanks left by the screenplay. This is a project which is heavily dependent on the devoted participation of everyone involved, and when taken on balance, this is a film which more than succeeds in creating an unrelentingly tense and rattling environment, as we are brought onto a thin, icy surface, on the edge of crashing into the depths below.