As the pandemic goes on, stay-at-home guidelines are forcing many families into day upon day of togetherness. Might some families at least be making the best of things by talking to each other more? Really talking?
Not likely. Even during good times, children of all ages tend to feel that their parents talk at them, or past them, not with them. And children can certainly be unfathomable to parents. If there ever was an exception, it should have been the Macleans of 1920s Missoula, Mont., the family in the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It,” adapted from Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical novella.
In the Robert Redford-directed drama, John Maclean, the head of the family, is a stern but kindly and fair-minded Presbyterian minister (played by Tom Skerritt in a beautifully restrained performance). His life seems rooted in words: a love of poetry and literature, close readings of Scripture, hours spent drafting elegant sermons. After all, the first line of the Book of John states, “In the beginning was the Word.”
And yet when his charismatic, rebellious son, Paul (a breakthrough performance by the dazzling young Brad Pitt), becomes addicted to gambling and drinking and mired in debt, John Maclean, the man of words, cannot find the words to talk with his beloved child, to ask about his troubles, to probe his feelings. As a writer, I’ve long loved this story of a philosophical, literary father who can give wise sermons but seems clueless about his son and incapable of helping him.
It also speaks to me as the son of a very different type of father, an Italian immigrant who was voluble, full of injunctions, quick with warnings to keep on track and be sensible, someone who read newspapers but hardly any books.
This film has come back to me because Frank Tommasini, my father, died recently at 99, feisty and active almost to the end. As a little boy he moved from a rural village in southern Italy to Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He was an industrious and pragmatic man whose family business combined kitchen and bathroom renovations with sales of appliances and cabinets. He was a generous provider and an overprotective patriarch. And he supported my passion for music even though he didn’t understand it.
But when I went through a preordained period of young adult rebelliousness, my father, nothing like John Maclean, took a combative approach to shaping me up. We particularly fought, back then, over my coming out as gay. But he mellowed, in time, as did I in my feelings toward him. We bonded deeply over the death of my mother from cancer when she was only 67. I was with him at her hospital bed when she died; in tears, he called her “my beautiful Irish girl.” Finally, something had happened that he couldn’t control.
My dad grew to be fond of my husband, Ben. We now had a doctor in the family! Looking back, I have to say: my father’s patriarchal bluster and certainty about how the world worked may have been infuriating, but you have to give him credit for trying, for getting involved.
I admire the character of John Maclean in “A River Runs Through It” and sense the deep, if unspoken, closeness within his family, which emanates especially from their modest mother (the always affecting Brenda Blethyn). Yet what still baffles me about this erudite father is that he seems not only unable to help Paul, but almost unwilling to try. It’s as if, according to his understanding, the Christian way is to respect the free will of every adult, even when it’s your reckless son.
As we see in early scenes, John Maclean brings up his two boys, Norman, three years older, and Paul, by imparting strict moral and educational codes and instilling in them his own devotion to fly-fishing. Norman, narrating the story years later (voiced by Redford), explains: “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.” After all, as the father liked to point out, Jesus’ disciples were fisherman.
John home-schools the boys. And if the lessons include any math or science, we see no evidence. Their curriculum seems focused on reading books and writing essays about what they read. John Maclean would have been a brutally effective newspaper editor. He takes the essays, makes corrections, then tells his sons to rewrite them so they’re half as long. When they do so, he makes more corrections, then demands they trim by half again! Only when the daily essays are concise and clear are the boys free to catch trout from the river.
Both sons wind up choosing writing professions. Norman (a stalwart, sensitive Craig Sheffer), attends Dartmouth and is away for six years. When he returns, Paul has become an enterprising reporter for a newspaper in Helena. He has also grown into a master fly-fisherman, devising techniques unknown even to his father.
As children the boys routinely fished with their father. Now that the brothers are independent adults, these outings, filmed with plush, enthralling imagery, have become intense male-bonding sessions where feelings are deep but words are few.
Norman falls for a bright, sassy young woman from town, Jessie (Emily Lloyd). Paul, defying racist society in Missoula, dates a Native American woman. His drinking starts getting out of control. Worse, he falls behind in a poker game at a seedy bar, a front for gambling and prostitution. And, as a policeman warns Norman one morning, after Paul has been jailed overnight for provoking a fight, it’s unwise to get in debt at that high-stakes game in out-of-the-way Lolo.
It’s sad, yet true to character that Norman has inherited some of his father’s reluctance to intervene with Paul. At a turning point, Norman tells Paul that he’s in love with Jessie. The brothers go out for a rowdy celebration that winds up at that remote bar. The other gamblers forcibly rebuff Paul. But when Norman gets in the car to leave, Paul tosses him the keys and insists on staying. Norman knows the truth, as he tells his brother: that Paul’s in debt and receiving threats. “It’s my debt,” Paul answers.
Every time I see the film I want Norman to stand up to Paul and insist they leave, to drag him home and make him talk with their father, who may not realize the full extent of Paul’s troubles. Instead he drives away, furious and worried, but acquiescent.
The inevitable happens. Paul is beaten to death one night with the butt of a rifle. But not before the three Maclean men take one last fly-fishing trip and Paul, after being dragged through fierce river currents, finally lands a huge rainbow trout. Holding the prize by the gills, he poses gloriously for a photograph.
Norman has been offered a job teaching literature at the University of Chicago and moves there with Jessie. Years later we see the aging John giving a sermon about how hard it is to help our loved ones, those we should know best, when they don’t seem to want our help, or we don’t feel we can provide the help they need.
I watched the film again after my father died. He would not have let this happen, I thought. What kind of father, he would have asked, would allow a son to get in such trouble? He would have sat Paul down and pounded sense into him while issuing ominous warnings. He would have done anything to pay off Paul’s debts. Though furious, Frank Tommasini would have taken charge. Or tried to.
Who knows? It might have worked.
“A River Runs Through It” is available to stream, rent or buy from major services.