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If you judge a work of art on whether or not it invites and rewards multiple hearings, The River Thief, the promising feature-length debut from YA novelist N. D. Wilson, is an unexpected success. I say unexpected because The River Thief also falls into that most justly dismissed cinematic sub-genre of aesthetic mediocrity: “Christian film.” But The River Thief is not your typical Christian movie. As Joshua Gibbs said in his review of the movie for FilmFisher:
Most Christian films do not require or even allow the viewer to search for secondary meaning in the sets, the untouched objects which fill the sets, the costumes, the names of the characters. The marriage in Fireproof is no marriage, but a token marriage. The characters are not characters, but token characters who don’t have real problems, but token problems. The things in most Christian films do not seem like real things, but placeholders for ideas. The token character is an end unto itself, and there is nothing more to see or discern than what is cursory—unlike a real human being, or even a real character, who can be known more deeply over the course of time. Wilson has made a film which repays a roving eye and a curious imagination. I could probably still find new correlations and connections between the characters on a second viewing, and that’s not a claim I have ever made about a faith-based film.
Though it stumbles a bit throughout, and especially in the finale, The River Thief remains a refreshingly layered and unpatronizing narrative brought to life through a handful of quite believable performances.
Grading on a Curve
The greatest compliment I can give to The River Thief is that I am not inclined to grade it on a curve. I am aware of the handicaps it had to overcome (two different people connected to the movie pointed me to an explanatory interview for some context). The River Thief did not have a very large budget, relatively speaking ($400,000). Many of its actors seemed like volunteers and most of the others were basically unknown to me. Wilson wrote the script and wrapped filming within the space of about three weeks—an impressive accomplishment for a freshman screenwriter/director even if the film were not as good as it turned out to be.
As many reviewers have already mentioned, The River Thief is nothing like any Christian movie anyone has ever seen. In the freshwater body of Christian film, The River Thief is a humongous fish. But within the first thirty minutes of the movie, I stopped comparing this movie to altar call vehicles from Sherwood Pictures and Pure Flix. I was thinking about Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers, and P. T. Anderson. The movie demands to be treated not as a “Christian movie,” but as a movie, plain and simple.
How does it hold up in the wider ocean of cinema? Surprisingly well, actually.
From the first voiceover, The River Thief invites you to pay closer attention through a clever interplay of word and image. The main character, Diz (ably played by Super 8 actor Joel Courtney), begins the movie (in a voice-over) with some rather ambiguous generalities: “Some places change things. Some days, some people. They can put a mark on you that won’t ever wash off—the good ones and the bad ones.” If it weren’t for the crisp, sweeping aerial shot of the dunes and the river, one might be tempted to think The River Thief plans to stay in the comfortably undemanding ether of the abstract. But the aerial shot along with the epigrammatic opening lines promise that you are about to come down from the mountain: you are about to delve below the tree line into the thorny particulars.
And the movie largely delivers on that promise. For one, it doesn’t have a happy ending in the most direct sense of those words. It doesn’t fall into what Benjamin Myers calls “the trap of sentimentality,” dripping in “emotion in excess of its object.” Most Christian films fall into sentimentality because their ultimate object actually is emotion. Most Christian films aim for nothing more than to get the audience to feel good, entertained, refreshed, affirmed, and inspired, and perhaps to use all that sugar to help the Sinner’s Prayer medicine go down. Actually, most films in general have that same aim and method (if perhaps a different Gospel). To its credit, The River Thief has an object beyond mere emotion. It aims to edify and to teach the truth by telling a story. Call it a parable.
Baptized in the Muddy Waters of Symbolism
Now would be a good time to discuss the nearly allegorical use of symbols and names throughout the movie. Nearly all the names point to an idea behind the characters and settings. Very occasionally these symbols take up a little more volume than their fictional containers can handle, and the symbols themselves become visible working behind the scenes. If Ars Est Celare Artem (Art is to Conceal Artifice) is to be believed, such unclothed symbolism is the most unforgivable obscenity in any work of art. But, much to my surprise and delight, the majority of The River Thief’s numerous symbolic references hide within the contours of their fictional realities, so that sense impressions and judgment need only rarely be separated (just as Flannery O’Connor demanded in Mystery and Manners).
Consider for a moment the self-disciplined gamble of such an approach. A filmmaker that hides his symbols within his story risks the possibility that a viewer won’t ever see or understand all that he has labored over. His intentionality and his care may never be appreciated. Most moviegoers, Christian or not, tend to expect their art to be as consumable as a Happy Meal: anything left over gets thrown in the trash and few people are going back for seconds. Therefore, hiding one’s symbolism takes humility, trust in the audience, and an unswerving dedication to your vision. It shows that N. D. Wilson is more concerned with giving his story what it is asking for than he is with giving an audience what it is asking for. I admire such a commitment, and I appreciate that he stuck to it for most of the movie.
What exactly are the symbolic meanings within The River Thief? I hesitate to write them here because I don’t want to rob you of the pleasure in finding things out. But here’s what I gathered, though it wouldn’t surprise me to find more.
Most importantly, we don't need to grade @NDWilsonMutters' #TheRiverThief on a "Christian Film" curve -@MetaMinkoff
What’s in a Name?
It seems all the names in The River Thief have symbolic significance. Since the end credits mention only the first names of characters (which given the careful nature of the movie is likely not an oversight), I will mostly discuss first names here.
The main character Diz almost certainly points to Dismas, the penitent thief who hung beside Jesus according to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Since Diz dies next to Marty (the earthly representative of Christ crucified) after saying, “I deserve it. I deserve it!” in similar words to the penitent thief (Luke 23:41), I believe this connection to be ironclad.
The name Marty likely points to “martyr,” which in the Scriptures literally means “witness.” Marty witnesses to Diz, representing Christ both in his words, actions, and final (more typical) martyrdom. He is a martyr in all the biblical senses of the word.
Marty’s granddaughter Selah also lives up to her name. Most Bible commentators believe “selah” means “to pause for reflection” in the Psalms. Since Diz is compelled by his attraction to Selah to “pause for reflection” in her town (even at the risk of his life), this fits. But selahs in the Psalms also typically punctuate a weighty or problematic statement worthy of more attention. The film ends with Selah riding beside the river, as if her presence is meant to invite the viewer to pause and reflect on what has come before.
Saul Morgan, the corrupt police officer chasing Diz for most of the movie, is likely named after two biblical characters (leaving the final outcome of his story ambiguous). The lesser referent is Saul the Israelite king, who started off right but turned from God. The more important referent is Saul (later Paul) who was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus with: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). There is a pointed conversation between Marty and Saul where Marty explains the mystical connection between Jesus and his people (particularly in suffering):
Marty: What you do to us, you do to him.
Saul: Are you saying that I can actually hurt Jesus Christ himself? And you believe that? Wow. Now that’s the best news I’ve heard in months.
Will Saul, like the former persecutor then apostle, repent? Or will he double down on his unbelief, like the fallen king? It’s unclear at the end of the movie, though Saul is shaken by one final revelation before the credits roll.
The arcade player who agrees to work with Diz might point to Philip the Evangelist or Philip the Apostle, though I can’t see why either of those would be significant. In either case, his name change holds some weight (Bubby [from the Yiddish for “doll”] to Phillip), as it offers hope that other names might be changed as well (Saul to Paul perhaps?).
Then there’s Crazy Clyde Catskill. The easiest symbolic connection to Clyde is the famous criminal (of Bonnie & Clyde). But another interesting tidbit is that the name Clyde originated with the River Clyde in Scotland. Clyde, the “bad-kind-of-crazy” criminal, is “of the river,” which in a movie set around the Snake River must hold significance. Clyde’s last name “Catskill” also refers to a running body of water (since Catskill literally means “Cat Creek,” aside from intimating violence).
I may be reading too much into this (a symbol menagerie like this movie is prone to encourage such things), but Morgan (Saul’s last name) has connections to “lion” which would seem to contrast Clyde’s “cat”:
The Scottish surname [Morgan] is of Saka (Hebrew: “lion” according to Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary) origin, and the Ancient Morgan clan was the proud First Clan of Scotland: They were known as the Kouranavioi and owned the islands of The Catti (lions) including The Hebrides and Orkney. They also were the first earls of Cattness or Caithness before they relocated to Wales.
So Saul Morgan “the lion” (who didn’t actually pull the trigger) is more to be held responsible for Marty and Diz’s “martyrdom” than Clyde “the cat.” Clyde, clearly aping Pontius Pilate in the end, isn’t the ultimate antagonist then. Saul Morgan has more in connection to the roaring lion who is seeking whomever he may devour. And it is that lion, or snake, who poses the ultimate menace.
Speaking of which, the whole movie begins and ends with a shot of the winding Snake River, clearly connected to the Serpent. Later in the movie, Diz sees a snake in a jewelry store with the sign: “I am real. I am alive.” One can’t help but think Wilson wants you to hang that same sign in front of another more famous Serpent.
At the beginning of the movie, Diz is just floating down the river (following the will of the Snake). The title of the movie can be read a few different ways. Diz is the thief from the river, but who is the thief of the river? In other words, who plunders the Snake’s slaves? A few years ago, the band Brock’s Folly wrote a song called “Christ the Thief” which points to Jesus’ identity as the stronger man who binds Satan and plunders his house (Matt. 12:29). I couldn’t help but think Wilson might have had that in mind, but perhaps (again) I’m over-reaching.
Last but not least, some of the movie takes place at Effie Burgers, where Selah works. Effie is likely short for Euphemia, who was martyred (there’s that idea again) at Chalcedon in AD 303.
Other Objects and Images of Symbolic Significance
Most viewers will probably also notice an odd emphasis on two objects Diz steals from an antique store: a figurine and a candlestick. The figurine is called a “princess” at one point, and there is a sense in which one could read the objects as representing Selah (the princess) and the candle (light of truth/love). Selah is a princess who has light in her presence. Though this interpretation has some validity, I believe the objects refer to something else—something connected scripturally to perseverance in the face of persecution.
Revelation was written to Christians undergoing great persecution. They were “martyrs” for the faith. The seven letters within Revelation were written to the angels of each church, which churches were represented by seven lamp stands, or candle sticks (Rev. 1:20). The presence of the angel figurine (not “princess,” which may have been an intentional misdirection) with the lampstand/candlestick indicates a quite Apocalyptic view of the church. The angel and the lampstand are in the presence of the church on earth: in the house of the martyrs.
There’s yet another, more literary, connection to the stolen candlestick from Les Miserablés. In it, the thief Jean Valjean steals some silver from a charitable priest named Bishop Myriel. The priest, unwilling to testify to Valjean’s guilt before the police, instead gives Valjean additional silver candlesticks which Valjean had not originally stolen. The priest tells Valjean, “It is your soul that I am buying for you.” Like the charitable priest, Marty refuses to allow Diz to remain a thief. He gives Diz money (and even a car), calling it a gift rather than a theft. One of the central ideas in the film is that our response to grace (the turning of a theft into a gift) should be gratitude.
Another object turned symbol is the door to the room where Marty and Diz are found shot. The camera focuses on that door for an almost uncomfortable amount of time. Just after this, while Selah looks upon the martyrs’ graves, you see that two strips of sod have been laid over the dirt to create what looks like a door on top of the grave. The significance: Death is not the end for the martyrs. Death is a door to paradise.
There is also the thirty dollars Diz throws at the feet of Marty, probably pointing to the price Judas took to betray Jesus. And I would imagine there are numerous other connections and Easter eggs (I noted that the producers—the Oxleys—got a Snake River Radio station named after them, for instance).
The most heavy-handed of the various symbolic gestures in the movie came when Clyde took “What is truth?” (from John 18:38) right out of Pontius Pilate’s mouth before shooting Marty, then washed his hands directly afterward while declaring his innocence, also just like Pilate. This was one of the few instances where Wilson wasn’t willing to trust the audience to get it. Any one of those markers would have pointed to Pilate, but all three (quoting, washing, declaring innocence) is just too much. Which leads me to a few other gripes (I promised I wasn’t grading this on a curve).
A Few Other Gripes
Aside from the few unclothed symbols, my biggest issue with The River Thief concerns the ending, unfortunately. I understand why Wilson included Diz’s voice-over at the end. For one, it indicates that though Diz is dead, he still speaks (like his faith-filled martyr forebears—Heb. 11:4f). From a narrative perspective, this also neatly bookends the movie with Diz’s voice-overs over the Snake River. Which feels somehow right. But, in spite of this, I think it was a mistake.
I think the movie should have ended with Selah in her silence, virtually caressing the wind over the Snake River. This wind (i.e., pneumas) also featured in the opening shots of the movie. By doing this, Wilson would have extended the same trust for the audience in the end that he had been extending from the beginning. Instead, the movie begins in safe abstractions, then delves into thorny concreteness, then concludes in safe abstractions again. The abstractions in the end tell the viewer what to think—what to take away from the film. That’s nearly always a mistake in any film, but in this film, it was particularly disappointing. All that was needed in the end was silence for reflection. All that was needed was Selah.
N. D. Wilson is a writer, and like many writers who begin working in movies, he hasn’t quite learned to show instead of tell. He is not yet a master of the silent gesture, the loaded expression, the telling juxtaposition, the subtle pause. He also doesn’t have the actors necessary to fully accomplish those things. Tommy Cash and Joel Courtney gave able, though uneven, performances, but some of the other actors reminded me I was watching a movie—the lines they were delivering seemed like lines they were delivering rather than words I might find “in the wild.”
Given more time, Wilson might have been able to adapt some of those lines to better suit his actors, amateurs or not. If his aim was merely to illustrate a written story, he did a good job. But directors should aspire to something more than that. The greatest movies tell stories that words alone aren’t adequate to tell. Wilson made a movie that has to be read (in a symbolic sense at least) more than it has to be seen.
It was fitting to begin the film with a voice-over, the very epitome of telling over showing. Telling is where Christian film is right now. And Wilson is clearly dialoguing with Christian film (and audiences) where they are. For instance, the shot of “Family Fun” outside the bowling alley, where Diz almost died at the hands of a corrupt police officer, held out a bit of ironic criticism for the current state of Christian art—like perhaps our family-friendly fantasy isn’t adequate to deal with real problems.
But Wilson will have to do more. I want him to challenge himself and his audience even more. I don’t just want him to make an indie Christian film better than all other indie Christian films (which he probably succeeded in doing). I want more.
That said, N. D. Wilson is off to a great start here. I hope his investors make so much money off of this movie that he gets a few more shots at making movies with even better actors, with more time to write a script, and with all the other improvements I am sure he already has in mind.
In order to make that happen though, you need to spend money on this movie. Buy it on iTunes. Watch it in theaters. Do whatever you can. This isn’t a perfect movie, but this is the kind of movie Christian film-makers need to be making. And the only way to tell them that is with your dollars.