Take Me to the River: All These Changes That You Put Me Through, by David Bax
You won’t see it described as such in any marketing materials but Matt Sobel’s Take Me to the River is a horror movie. It doesn’t have any monsters or serial killers or anything like that in it but its pervasive, sickening tension and dread recall the genre perfectly. It’s an effective atmosphere Sobel has pulled over his feature debut. The problem is that he doesn’t always come by it honestly.
There’s a minute or so, in the opening scene, where Sobel allows you to believe you’re in for a different kind of story. Teenager Ryder (Logan Miller) is in the car with his parents, Cindy (Robin Weigert) and Don (Richard Schiff), on the way to family reunion in rural Nebraska. The extended family doesn’t know Ryder is gay. The three in the car share a chuckle about how Don’s Jewishness is also a secret and, for a second, we think we might be watching a socially conscious fish out of water dramedy. Almost immediately, though, things change. Before the plot even kicks in, there’s a indescribable portent of something bad in the air. Maybe it’s the blank stares of Ryder’s male cousins. Or the way his uncle (Josh Hamilton) says kind words but maintains an intensely uneasy physical presence. By the time Ryder goes to explore a barn with his nine year old cousin, Molly (Ursula Parker), it’s clear doing so was a poor decision.
In other rural horror movies, deranged families (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) or cannibals (The Hills Have Eyes) stand in as allegories representing the urban and suburban viewer’s fears of what lies out beyond the high rises and shopping malls of America, where clannish folks observe older ways. Sobel isn’t interested in wasting time with any metaphors, though. The villains here are straight up rednecks (Ryder even calls them as much in a fit of rage). Even Parker, whose precociousness is cute on FX’s Louie, instead comes across as creepily coquettish.
When Ryder goes into that barn with Molly, we may understand implicitly that he shouldn’t have but, of course, he doesn’t. He doesn’t have the benefit of knowing he’s in such a disturbing movie. Take Me to the River’s main flaw, though, is that Ryder continues to make boneheaded, endangering decisions even after the stakes have been made clear. It’s an acknowledged tradition, during a horror movie, to want to shout, “Don’t go in there!” But Sobel’s realist take on the genre means that such a reflex breaks the suspension of disbelief. Why does Ryder, who has acted like and been described as a smart kid, keep acting like a fucking idiot, other than that the screenplay needs him to? Or does Sobel think we don’t see the next plot development coming either? It certainly can’t be the latter, because the anticipation of what’s about to happen is the foundation on which Sobel’s grim ambience rests.
It’s disappointing that the gears of Sobel’s screenplay keep pushing us out of the story because his grasp of film language is more than promising from a new director. The centerpiece is the scene which gives the movie its title. Ryder swims in the river and, as he does so, the current gently pushes him farther and farther downstream. Sobel’s camera moves with him. The metaphor is innately understood through the movement in the frame. The further Ryder swims in these waters, the worse things are going to get.
There’s a reveal just before the end that is shocking yet perfectly logical given what we’ve seen up to that point. It’s so well-placed by Sobel and so well-acted by Miller, Weigert, Hamilton, Parker and Schiff that it almost makes up for the earlier disingenuousness. But not quite. Take Me to the River doesn’t quite hold water but I eagerly await seeing what Sobel does next.