My wife and I rarely watch a movie all the way through in one sitting. Usually it is broken up over two nights. After the first night, the kids will usually ask me, “How is the movie?” My answer is, “That depends on the ending.” How a movie ends usually makes or breaks it. A bad ending can ruin an otherwise good movie. A good ending, an ending that satisfies, can take an okay movie to good and a good movie to great. Our family finally got around to watching N. D. Wilson’s The River Thief. This movie is an example of the ending making the movie better. The ending satisfied in numerous ways. I am not a movie critic nor the son of a movie critic. I have never made, wrote, directed, or acted in a movie. So take my thoughts with that in mind. Here are my thoughts about this movie, starting with some criticisms.
First, you are not watching a movie made on a 20 million dollar budget with top of the line actors and special effects. If you are expecting that then you will be disappointed. The acting is better than the first Kendrick Brothers movie, Flywheel, but there are still some bad moments. This is not so much a criticism as it is a reminder of what to expect and that Christians have a ways to go when it comes to production values and acting.
Second, the story could have been tighter. At places the plot was uneven and the script was weak. Some questions naturally arise, such as why would that woman’s son help Diz? Read the Filmfisher review, which hits on a few these problems as well as explaining why the grandfather is not a plot problem.
I have a few other criticisms, but considering this is the first full length movie by N.D. Wilson, that he wrote it and then shot it in three weeks, I would consider it a rousing success. Why?
First, it is a story, not a sermon. I don’t want to be too hard on the Kendrick Brothers, but I have issues with how their movies are mini-sermons instead of movies. Wilson’s movie is not about getting you to the altar. It is story told by a Christian. It touches on key themes such as fatherhood, guilt, sin, redemption, death, love, and forgiveness without being heavy handed. It is hard to enjoy a movie that preaches to you, whether secular or Christian. As the Filmfisher review says the movie has “the sensation that there is something behind a closed door, even if it is never opened.” The world of The River Thief is filled with meaning that is not always on the surface.
Second, I liked that there was violence, the hint of rape, and cussing. There should have been more cursing, especially by the bad guys. But considering that most Christian movies operate in a world where cuss words are non-existent and bad guys are really not that bad, Wilson’s movie felt closer to the real world than any other recent Christian movie. The movie was step in the right direction. If Christians are going to make convincing stories they have to learn to include the ugliness and darkness of the world without violating Biblical principles or becoming pornographic. I also liked how initially he only hinted at the violence, such as the woman getting shot behind the bowling alley, but eventually he showed it. Not sure why he did that, but I enjoyed it.
Third, I don’t want to give away too much here, but the ending is not neat and tidy. It doesn’t all work out. One of my complaints about the Kendrick Brothers movies and movies like God is not Dead is how everything works out in the end. A story with a happy ending is not necessarily a bad thing. But it must not feel manipulated. And too often for Christian movies it does. And it should be understood that a happy ending doesn’t always look like what it does in those movies. The River Thief takes a different direction and one that Christian movie makers need to go if they want to get better at their craft and be more convincing in their story telling. Some men hate Jesus and go to their grave hating Him no matter what they see in front of them. Good people are not always rescued in the end. The boy doesn’t always get the girl.
Fourth, the editing was solid. Some parts were choppy or didn’t flow as easily as they could have but overall it was good. I thought the scene in the bowling alley was particularly well shot.
Fifth, as I said earlier, I liked the ending a lot. The conclusion was unexpected. The twist was well done and not overplayed, a reminder that we often don’t know who our sins will affect and of the impact of fatherlessness. The main character changes, but that change does not involve him saying the sinner’s prayer. The ending reminds us that some things are worse than death and sometimes death is the best thing for us. Survive no matter what is not the Christian motto.
Finally, I enjoyed the emphasis on gratitude, which has been a hallmark of N.D. Wilson’s writing and his father’s. A movie can have dark elements without plunging us into despair.
It is my hope that N.D. Wilson continues to write, direct, and produce movies. There is a lot of room to improve, but movies like this one take a different path than the more the popular Christian movies, which is a good thing. The trajectory is better. We need this type of storytelling coming from Christians. Maybe one day he will get to direct a movie of one of his kids books. I am hoping for The Dragon’s Tooth series…once it gets finished.
P.S. Here is a related post on why I think pictures of redemption in movies are better than explicit examples of people being saved.
P.S.S. Here is another post I wrote on Christians making movies.