Before I lost patience with found-footage horror films, I made a note to take a look at this new show on ABC called The River. A small, cynical part of me imagined the pitch as "Paranormal Activity meets Lost", and a larger, less-cynical part of me hoped something that commercially tailored could still yield something worth watching. I didn't exactly go in with low expectations, more sort of a sense of "okay, could you all please not fuck this up?" What can I say? I liked the premise too much to completely dismiss it.
The River is a found-footage story about the mysterious disappearance of Emmet Cole, host of a long-running nature show in which he, his devoted wife Tess, and their adorable child Lincoln explore the Amazon in their boat and check out all the interesting flora and fauna to be found in the river basin. Sort of like The Crocodile Hunter meets Heart of Darkness.
At least, that's how it used to be. When the show opens, Lincoln is a grown man, estranged from his father, and his mother has come to him to convince him to join a new expedition to find Emmet, whose rescue beacon has just gone active after six months of complete radio silence. Naturally, Lincoln joins the expedition, whose other members include the show's producer, two cameramen, a private security person, the ship's engineer, his repair-savant daughter, and the daughter of one of the cameramen who went with Cole. None of these people are new to the Amazon, they've done this trip before, and so we start off with a group who have their shit together. Even Lincoln, who has the potential to spin off into daddy-never-loved-me-as-much-as-the-show histrionics, is pleasantly low-key and human about his feelings. Part of what's financing the trip is the production company that handled Emmet's show, so there's a perfectly good reason for there to be cameramen there. As found-footage conceits go, it's not too bad. It's also really nice to have the protagonists be something other than a bunch of irritating teen cannon fodder. These are grownups, doing grownup things, on a grownup trip.
And then when they find the wreck of Emmet Cole's boat, the grownup trip gets really weird, really fast. The boat is beat and torn to shit, run aground on the riverbank, and there's a room in the ship with some kind of weird shrine in it. A room that was welded shut from the outside. And there's blood all over the bulkheads.
Bombarding us with imagery and information works for a haunted-house setup like American Horror Story because there's a lot of emphasis on the role of the house, isolation, being trapped, being unsafe in intimate spaces where we should be safe. This is a show about a long journey into the unknown, and long journeys into the unknown benefit from the slow burn, a feeling of strangeness that grows the further you go downriver, the further you go into the heart of darkness. The first two or three episodes are very "look, here's some weird shit! Oh no, here's some more weird shit!", which never gives the uneasiness a chance to sink in, never gives us a chance to dread what's around the next corner, what's in the next episode. The characters are also a pretty variable bunch - Lincoln and Lena (the daughter of a missing cameraman) and ship's engineer Emilio are pretty believable people, with moments of strength and moments of doubt. Tess breaks obsessive a little early, going from "we're going to look for him" to "find him at all costs" a little too quickly, and the show's producer and cameramen are pretty cartoony in their disregard for the reality of their situation in pursuit of good footage.
On the other hand, the show does have some strengths - there are moments of real tension and uncertainty, and the cameramen, the built-in cameras on Emmet's ship, and archival footage of the show and tapes that Emmet made right up to his disappearance maintain the found-footage conceit while still preserving some narrative and visual variety. Moreso than most found-footage movies, this show really is building up to be a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces coming from a bunch of different sources and slotting together to communicate something larger. If the producers could just resist their urge to keep us on our toes every minute and let some of the weirdness simmer instead, this would be a no-brainer. As it is, I'll keep watching, not thinking too hard about how they'd continue this story over multiple seasons, hoping they continue to not fuck it up.
Available on Amazon Instant Video