Willem Dafoe narrates this entrancing documentary about the planet's waterways and their role in human history, as directed by Australian 'Sherpa' and 'Mountain' filmmaker Jennifer Peedom.
March 24, 2022
Some actors possess voices that could narrate almost anything, and Willem Dafoe is one of them. Move over Morgan Freeman: when Dafoe speaks, his dulcet vocals echoing atop gorgeous imagery of the world's waterways as happens in River, being entranced by the sound is the only natural response. He's tasked with uttering quite the elegiac prose in this striking documentary, and he gives all that musing about tributaries and creeks — the planet's arteries, he calls them at one point — a particularly resonant and enthralling tone. Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa) knew he would, of course. She enlisted his talents on her last documentary, Mountain, as well. Both films pick one of the earth's crucial natural features, lens them in all their glory at multiple spots around the globe, and wax lyrical about their importance. Both make for quite the beguiling viewing experience.
Thanks to writer Robert Macfarlane, Dafoe has been given much to opine in River — and what he's asked to say is obviously even more crucial than the fact that it's the Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Card Counter, The French Dispatch and Nightmare Alley star expressing it. The subject is right there in the title, but the film's aims are as big and broad as an ocean, covering the history of these snaking streams from the planet's creation up until today. "Humans have long loved rivers," Dafoe announces, which seems like a self-evident statement; however, not one to trade in generalisations without evidence, River then unpacks exactly what that means. It also uses that idea as a foundation, but paired with another, which Dafoe also gives voice to — this time as a question: "as we have learned to harness their power, have we also forgotten to revere them?".
The answer is blatant, lapping away at the souls of everyone who lives in a river city and passes their central watercourse daily without giving it a second thought. Indeed, that plain-as-day response ripples with even more force to anyone who has been struck by the waterways' power when natural disasters strike, a fact that hits close to home after Australia's disastrously flooded summer across Queensland and New South Wales — timing that the movie isn't overtly trying to capitalise upon, given it first started doing the rounds of film festivals in 2021, and has had its March 2022 date with Aussie cinemas booked in for months. A documentary doesn't have to tell viewers something wholly new to evoke wonder, though. Conveying well-known truths in unforgettable and affecting ways has always been one of cinema's key skills, whether working in fact or fiction. River's sentiments won't come as a surprise, but it still feels like a fresh splash of water upon a parched face.
Dafoe's narration and the film in general hone in on the importance of rivers to human civilisation since its very beginnings, starting with the unshakeable reality that rivers have made much in our evolution possible. Also just as pivotal: the devastation we've wrought in response since we learned to harness all that water for our own purposes, irrigate the land far and wide, and take an abundance of H2O for granted, which River doesn't ebb away from. The prose is flowery, but never overdone; its eager quest for potent poetry, or to be mentioned in the same breath as Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, always feels attuned to the awe it holds for its eponymous streams. It's also on par with Dafoe, Peedom and Macfarlane's work back in 2017 on Mountain, which was similarly hypnotic — and became the highest-grossing non-IMAX Australian documentary ever made, a claim to fame it still holds today.
This time joined by co-director/co-scribe and feature debutant Joseph Nizeti, River's veteran trio don't simply paddle into familiar waters like they've easily charted this course — or climbed this peak — before, however. They repeat much of what they did last time, including pairing dazzling sights with a score by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, but it's fitting that there's a keen flow to this film that makes it an especially majestic and moving watch. It's there in the pace of the cinematography, as lensed by a five-strong team that includes Sherpa and Mountain's Renan Ozturk. It's evident in the rhythms of the feature's editing, too, with The Babadook, Spear, Martha: A Picture Story and The Nightingale's Simon Njoo doing the honours. As fast as a cascading waterfall at times, and as patient as a barely babbling brook at others, River couldn't take the job of honouring its subject in as many ways as it can more seriously.
Thanks to those arresting visuals — spectacular footage that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible — and the accompanying score, River was always going to earn flowery terms slung its own way. The vision is that remarkable as it soars high and wide across 39 countries, and peers down with the utmost appreciation. The swirling orchestral music, which includes everything from Bach to Radiohead, adds amply to the journey as well (even if it does occasionally leave viewers yearning for sounds as natural the movie's sights). Here, a picture truly is worth a thousand of those Dafoe-uttered words, but the combination of both is something exceptionally special.
It's interesting, then, that River is the achievement it is thanks to all of its moving parts coming together so fluidly, but its imagery is also always second to none. While the combination mesmerises, only the film's visuals could tell the same tale alone — and what a story they tell. There's a cohort of documentaries that have attempted the same observational feat without any sense of spoken narrative, an approach seen at its best in the Qatsi trilogy of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, also in Baraka and Samsara, and even in recent Oscar-nominee Ascension; River reaches the same immersive and insightful levels. What a joy it is to be the film that doesn't need Willem Dafoe's narration, but is all the better for it. Even better: what a joy it is to watch that movie. And, in just-as-fantastic news, Peedom sees River as the second part of a trilogy.
Top image: Pete McBride.