"Where the Rivers Flow North" affords Rip Torn with one of the best roles of his screen career and Native Canadian actress Tantoo Cardinal an equally fine opportunity to shine in this modest, beautiful, deeply felt film about a strong man who finally cannot bring himself to accept the inevitability of change.
In director Jay Craven and his co-writer Don Bredes' skillful adaptation of Howard Frank Mosher's novel, Torn plays Noel Lord, a long-haired, aging logger living with a hearty, middle-aged Native American called Bangor (Cardinal) in the gorgeous Vermont wilderness. Lord has a lifetime lease on this land, where his ancestors are buried.
That's not about to stop a company (headed by a forceful Michael J. Fox) already well under way in constructing a $30-million dam that will leave Lord's property under 50 feet of water. True to its period, the film wisely steers clear of highly contemporary environmental issues.
The dam builders may be tough, but they're not presented as truly evil; the dam will contribute enormously to the regional economy as a source of hydroelectric power. Although Lord is mule-stubborn, "Where the Rivers Flow North," which is set in 1927, refreshingly does not evolve into a predictable David vs. Goliath struggle. The conflict is instead really within Lord himself.
More sensible and realistic than Lord, Bangor argues for accepting a buyout, for she acknowledges that, even without the prospect of the dam, their way of life is becoming increasingly less tenable. But Lord is caught up totally in trying to outfox his adversaries.
This film may well represent Torn's best work since the similarly rural "Heartland" and "Payday," in which he so unforgettably played a doomed country star based on Hank Williams. Torn's specialty is playing colorful, sometimes backwoodsy eccentrics, and at times he tends to go over the top. (One wag said that the best thing about "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" was that Torn wasn't in it!)
That's what makes his rigorously understated playing of the taciturn Lord all the more impressive and gratifying; clearly, Torn respected his role, and it shows. Cardinal more than holds her own with Torn, and has such a vibrant presence that she easily offsets the tendency toward quaintness in her pidgin English dialogue.
"Where the Rivers Flow North," which in its concluding sequence could wind up a bit faster, is primarily but not exclusively a two-character drama (set off with earthy humor). Treat Williams cameos deftly as a carnival fight promoter, and Bill Raymond elicits sympathy as the dam company representative who has the thankless task of trying to negotiate with Lord.
The film is an evocative, painstaking period piece enhanced stunningly by a spare, pulsating score by the Horse Flies with Ben Wittman. Since "Where the Rivers Flow North" so successfully transports us to the past, it is truly lamentable that three sequences are marred by the presence of an illusion-destroying overhead mike dangling over the actors' heads. To offset this, projectionists would have to keep a constant eye on the screen and try to adjust the image accordingly.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for a sexual reference. Times guidelines: It also includes some violence but is suitable for older children.
'Where the Rivers Flow North'
Rip Torn: Noel Lord Tantoo Cardinal: Bangor Bill Raymond: Wayne Quinn David Bailey: Rollins Michael J. Fox: Clayton Farnsworth Treat Williams: Fight promoter A Caledonia Pictures presentation. Director Jay Craven. Producers Bess O'Brien, Craven. Screenplay by Don Bredes, Craven; based on the novel by Howard Frank Mosher. Cinematographer Paul Ryan. Editor Barbara Tulliver. Costumes Stephanie Kerley. Music The Horse Flies with Ben Wittman. Production designer David Wasco. Art director Charles Collum. Set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
* In limited release at the Monica 4-Plex (for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run), 1332 2nd St . , Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.