Inside River Run


River Run: Detective, find thyself

J.C. Chandor's new film is an obsessive quest to solve the mystery of memory and self

ALOYSIUS BURNS       JAN 8, 2014   

A movie made from a book is seldom better, unless the book is by, say, Steven King. So what to make of River Run, the new movie version of Francesca Vero’s “metafictional” novel, with its multiple layers of reality, self-references and an entire richly populated website of additional material including, among other things, music, videos, outtakes and three alternate endings?


As I am still wandering hopelessly through the labyrinth of the website with diminishing hopes of ever finding my way out—never mind discovering the “enigma of zero”—I’m not in a position to say.


What I can say is that the movie, based on a script by Vera herself, and directed by J. C. Chandor, is a delicious entertainment, crackling with wit and invention from start to finish. It’s a full-on mystery story, where the detective is in an increasingly obsessive search for himself, along with undertones of irony, satire and, if you’re interested, a subtext on the nature of identity. Fortunately, the novel was written in a largely cinematic style, in which the prose is easily translatable into the visual grammar of the movies.


The plot begins with a man (Ryan Gosling) waking up on a men’s room floor of an Interstate truck stop near Reno, Nevada, with no memories and no idea of who he is. He hitches a ride to San Francisco where he is forced to live the life of a homeless person. Three years later, he is discovered and identified. A corporate jet arrives to take him home to Houston, where he is Travis Quinn, the CEO of a Mexican restaurant chain who had been previously kidnapped and held for ransom. It should be the fulfillment of a dream come true for Quinn, but it’s not for the man who had spent three years struggling to survive and surmount destitution. He’s an entirely different person now, with no interest in wealth, power, or the shady business practices that were responsible for his success. What he is interested in is finding out more about his earlier life—not an easy task since he had deliberately obscured his past, having purposely reinvented himself at least once since he was a teenager. That quest of his identity takes him to the Boston area and ultimately to the small town of River Run, Vermont.


Along the way, Quinn meets the friends and family he had known prior to moving to Houston, people who often have very different versions of the same incidents in Quinn’s past. Here the movie shines in a series of flashbacks, narrated in voiceover by whomever he is talking to. The flashbacks vary in visual style. When Sylvia (Emma Stone), a former girlfriend, recounts their relationship, the sequence adopts the earnest, romantic style of a PBS Masterpiece production. When it’s Cripps (Jonah Hill), the devious, mercurial former friend, the style is reminiscent of something Terry Gilliam might have cooked up. These sequences are the most entertaining aspects of the film. A particular standout is Bernice, a Wiccan operating-room nurse, played by the nearly unrecognizable Jessica Chastain, and Scott Luddin (Jesse Eisenberg), a visionary video-game developer, who is one part Steve Jobs and one part Elon Musk.


Along with memory loss, Quinn suffers from episodes of acute dissociation, which some directors might have been tempted to film as LSD trips, but here are more subtly rendered in a mode of hyper-reality characterized by sudden and radical shifts in point of view, rapid cutting, and distortions of sound. and music provided by composer Clint Marshall.


The director had four possible endings to choose from (the “official” one in the book and three alternates on the website). It might be argued that none of the possible endings, in which the prose is a major factor in making them work, was suitable for a movie. Asserting his judgment as to what is best for film, Chandor came up with his own version that offers an elegant and satisfying solution closely aligned with the book’s vision of eternal recapitulation.


River Run is not without flaws. When the movie’s hip ironic tone suddenly veers into scenes of genuine pathos, the transition seems jarring, particularly in the third act when Quinn’s tragic family background is revealed. And then there is the uninspiring score of Clint Marshall, who did exemplary work in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (which thematically bears some resemblance to River Run) but doesn’t quite reach those heights in Chandor’s film.


But these are quibbles. The movie is of the kind that embeds itself in the mind, a persistent qualm, arousing the same anxieties bothering Travis Quinn, who can’t seem to shake the believe that he’s simply a character in someone’s else’s imagination.