A documentary about a man who arrogantly strides into some of the most dangerous areas nature has to offer would begin with a Hemingway quote. In this case it’s from his classic war novel A Farewell to Arms, and it goes thusly: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
As per usual when a sentence from a complex, nuanced story gets dropped into another with no context, there’s always more. You don’t need to read the book or know the exact chapter to sense that Hemingway’s novel is darker than this one sentence would have us believe; anyone who’s passingly familiar with one particular romcom starring two people who stand out for their attractiveness in a genre full of the absurdly beautiful and lovelorn will have had the ending ruined for them by now.
Give The River Runner a chance though, and it goes to a few somewhat surprising places. None of them are exactly new ground, but rather than Hemingway’s words being “twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,” as another man once wrote, they help establish River as a doc for the present moment rather than pining for times past. And it makes for a much better vantage point for a view on Scott Lindgren’s life.
A legend in the kayaking world, Lindgren broke ground in the 90’s, where he found himself “in the right place at the time doing the right thing,” as he puts it. Growing up in the 70’s in a hardscrabble childhood that included a stabbing incident, kayaking became a way to channel his energy and aggression into a sport he loved. For a long time, it paid off, with the production company he founded raking in the money thanks to his very 90’s videos, and building up camaraderie with his fellow daredevil kayakers who were willing to paddle in some of the world’s most dangerous waters.
As The River Runner brings in many of Lindgren’s contemporaries, they’re all various shades of wistful as they recount the days of their youth, when “all was right in the world.” It isn’t until later that this world is contextualized somewhat, with their filmmaking seeming to occur in something of a vacuum for anyone unfamiliar with the bustling, bursting world of indie movies at the time.
Context is reserved for the emotional and spiritual implications of how Lindgren was living at the time. Footage of him and his bros, all young white men who looked, thought, and acted the same, raises all the red flags, and sure enough, Lindgren and his friends leaned all in to the most toxic expectations of masculinity at the time. Fueled by adrenaline, they would immediately ostracize anyone who showed what they viewed as emotional weakness, unable to harden themselves to the demands of what quickly became their full-time jobs.
That included the death of many he’d grown close to. “I’d lost too many friends, so it was easy to be a dick about it,” Lindgren regretfully recalled. None of them knew how to cope, so any loss or mental and emotional difficulties were drowned in binge drinking and the constant search for their next expedition. Runner compassionately gives us a view into the toll this took on its subject, as Lindgren’s passion and mindset slowly broke down and corporate demands grew, feeding into ever greater self-isolation. When his breaking point finally came, what was supposed to be an absence of three months from his beloved kayaking ballooned into eight years.
When bad habits build up over the course of a lifetime, it tends to take something drastic to change them, and Lindgren’s catalyst is a brain tumor, which proves to be the course corrector he needs. It’s also when the documentary’s values are on full display, as Lindgren becomes committed to healing himself mentally as well as physically, forming a healthy relationship, and getting back into the kayaking.
It’s also where Rush Sturges is perhaps too close to the story, being a professional kayaker himself. Inserting himself and where he falls into the story a bit would add some needed context make an already emotional process all the more touching to see both him and Lindgren at peace with passing the torch rather than attempting to relive their years of glory.
Seeing the next generation make something even better can be a bittersweet thing, and change is clearly good when the younger, still all male kayakers refuse to ostracize Lindgren in his more fragile state. He’s a man they clearly all still admire, and they treat him far better than how he acknowledges he treated others, assisting him in his recovery.
Lindgren’s healing journey is ongoing, and he and Sturges will clearly still feel a great affection for the nature they once made their life in, which is depicted with vibrant animation as they describe the uncontrollable rivers they love and respect. The main focus are the four which flow from Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash, and it’s this obsession that is the throughline of The River Runner, even as they become almost a sideline to the documentary’s surprisingly tender meditations on healing and change.
An outside perspective would’ve been useful for making Runner a potentially great film, but its deeply insular gaze will be appealing to an audience that’s more invested than ever in mental health and growth.
Rating: 6/10 SPECS
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