Film Review: The River Thief

A teenage crook gets himself, and a girl and her grandfather, into lethal trouble in this haphazard combination of crime drama, young-adult romance and religious fable.
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There’s a whole lot of thinly veiled preaching in The River Thief, most of it having to do with the idea that “gratitude gives you freedom.” Alas, writer-director N.D. Wilson’s drama is hopelessly confused about what it actually wants to say about thankfulness, selflessness and escape—topics which it haphazardly addresses throughout its story of a young drifter who winds up ensnaring a young girl and her grandfather in potentially lethal trouble. The result is an awkward hodgepodge of crime thriller, young-adult romance and religious sermon that—like its soundtrack’s combination of cascading guitars and ’80s synth sounds—proves an ungainly mess of disparate tones.

Diz (Joel Courtney) is a ne’er-do-well teen who was abandoned as a kid, and now lives on the streets, stealing to survive. Cocky and amoral, he’s a punk who doesn’t care about anything but himself, although that changes when, after robbing people along the Pacific Northwest’s Snake River, he winds up in a nearby town and falls for Selah (Raleigh Cain), a waitress defined by her spunkiness. When Diz skips out on his lunch bill, Selah’s attitude-heavy anger is ignited—and further stoked when her grandfather Marty (Tommy Cash, younger brother of Johnny) gives Diz some cash to pay for the meal, and he pockets it instead. Despite this rocky meet-cute, however, Diz is quickly taken with Selah’s strength, and is soon buying her flowers, balloons and antique jewelry, as well as showing up on her doorstep with a white limousine for her and Marty to use.

The cash needed to pay for such luxuries comes from crooked cop Saul (Paul Johansson) and his murderous sidekick Clyde (Bas Rutten), whom Diz robs of their drug-dealing loot. Those villains naturally come after Diz, leading to gunfire-peppered chase sequences that are staged with maximum clunkiness and minimal tension. Before long, Selah and Marty also become targets of these bad guys, which allows The River Thief to have Marty truly let loose with spiritual homilies and Bible-inspired quotations. Yet Wilson’s script is never anything less than cumbersome, replete with unintentionally funny moments like Selah admonishing spendthrift Diz with “You can’t buy me, because I’m not a whore!”

Plentiful images of characters in sunset silhouette, and aerial shots of the Snake River, give The River Thief a professional aesthetic sheen that’s undercut by jagged edits that disrupt the action’s general flow. Also not helping matters are mannered performances from the entire cast, with Cash in particular uttering his nuggets of faith-based wisdom with a severe leadenness. To its credit, the film’s climax (and ensuing bombshell revelation) is thoroughly unexpected. Even if it succeeds in upending expectations, though, the ending makes almost no thematic sense, and Diz’s epilogue narration—striving to imbue it with a philosophical weight it can’t possibly shoulder—finally, and definitively, leaves the entire affair feeling like a rickety collection of clichés and truisms disconnected from any sort of coherent narrative (or thematic) foundation.

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