The River Thief is a 2016 action adventure film about a young man living life abandoned by his parents and surviving as a thief until he steals from the wrong people.
Diz (Joel Courtney) is a brash, arrogant young man with an bold sense of entitlement, living alone along the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest. Homeless and parentless, he makes an existence stealing from boats and campers on the water. Fearless, he seems numb to the consequences, and realizes almost everybody is passive in their loss, simply putting up a show before letting him go. He has a bit of a conscience though. For instance, when he discovers an inhaler in a bag on a boat he stole, he brings it back. The whole boat. Well, within reach before swimming away that is.
Eventually, he works his way to sleepy hollow of a town along the riverbanks and goes to work, so to speak, pilfering small shops and out-right robbing big ticket items, practically daring anyone to chase him down. No one does. At a quiet little diner, he builds up a thirty-dollar tab and plans to leave without paying, but the spunky new waitress named Selah (Raleigh Cain), stops him and give him a tongue-lashing. Her grandfather thinks he can change the boy and pays his bill, and even invites him to come do some odd jobs at the house. He refuses and moves on, but is instantly smitten by the charming Selah.
But then he makes a very big mistake. In a dark, deserted parking lot, he spots a panel van and some sketchy looking men outside. They are making a huge drug deal. Unconcerned about that, Diz sneaks into the van and drives it into the river while being chased. He makes off with a big bag of cash and now he’s got people who won’t just let him go after him. One of these men he has stolen from is a sociopathic murderer who recently killed a partner and chopped him up into little bits. Diz, once dependent only on himself, now needs help, though doing so puts the first people he’s ever cared about in serious danger.
Written and directed by N.D. Wilson, The River Thief is a strange little film that feels like one of those signposts with many cities pointing all in different directions, but in this case replace city names with themes and tone and messages and so much more. It starts so very strongly, with an excellent montage of character development and mood, giving Diz a proper mysterious place in this highly specific setting. Without a word, we understand a lot about who he is, even if we don’t know his motivations. It’s compelling and instantly pulls you in.
And then it goes off the rails, unfortunately. While Diz remains an interesting character, what he does and why he does things are never truly explored beyond simply existing as a trait. More so, his interest in Selah is curious, and I would never try to explain the complexities of the heart or the actions some people might partake in expressing their feelings, but the lengths he goes through and the money he spends (from a valuable estate piece of jewelry to a full-on stretch limo and driver) to win her over are so far removed from the character as introduced, it’s jarring.
Then there are the bad guys, Clyde (Bas Rutten) and Saul (Paul Johansson), a pair who seem so rigidly set in the expected mold of villain that they come off a bit cartoonish, which might be a directorial intent but never quite fits. They are as quirky as the forced dialogue from Selah’s grandfather, Marty (Tommy Cash), a man so compassionate and convinced in unconditional love, he literally just gives Diz his car when the boy attempts to steal it. And that’s just one example. He is a fountain of inspiring religious-like quotes and affirmations, unwavering in his faith that he can turn the boy around.
Wilson does manage to capture the look and feel of the territory, and he does well setting a tone, but the film feels unfinished and lacking any real depth. There’s some talent in front of the camera, and the young Courtney, whom you might remember from J.J. Abrams‘ love letter to Steven Spielberg, Super 8 five years ago, still has promise and deserves more opportunities, but here can’t elevate this to something better. Actually, Cain comes off more impressive and is one to watch. The River Thief is a film with big ambitions but is ultimately too hollow to be memorable.