Abandoned, gutted cars are left to rot among tufts of tall grass. Old barns, complete with curled paint, jut out from the ground, stretching to the hot sky. Fields of flowers oscillate with the wind. And in the distance, like a diminutive dot, there is a shock of red shorts. Writer and director Matt Sobel’s “Take Me to the River” is a wind-hushed clash of tribes, geography, and gender tropes. Set in the sweltering landscape of Nebraska, we see a seventeen-year-old boy named Ryder (Logan Miller) absently milling around the premises of his extended family’s home. The yellow piping of his sunglasses striking a dissonant chord with the conservative voices around him. To the cornhuskers that reluctantly circle our protagonist, Ryder’s home in California is nothing short of a morally vapid, narcissistic wasteland. Though food is innocuously slopped on plates, during this family reunion, there is a contentious ire that rumbles just below the surface.
Sobel builds tension through topography, much like fellow directors Tom Gilroy or Jeff Nichols – the quiet aching of sun-stroked grass and bales of tethered hay resemble sleeping giants. Nature and machismo lay a reptilian eye to their surroundings. It’s this slow-burn suffocation that echoes through “Take Me to the River”, making the film a deliberately uncomfortable waltz of facetiousness and subdued violence. When a blurred event transpires, Ryder is left facing the ornery barrel of his uncle’s anger. Suppressed rage, classism, and prejudice seeps through the dirt, lineage, and feigned empathy of this particular family.
Logan Miller plays Ryder with a searing nuance that bounds, carefully, off of his surroundings. Here is an actor that understands the material, and imbues his character with genuine emotion. The supporting cast in the film – particularly that of Josh Hamilton, a fantastic character actor that plays Ryder’s vitriolic uncle – is mostly fantastic in their respective roles.
The problem with Sobel’s film, ultimately, is its climax – it is one that attempts to clarify, too boldly, its characters and their intent; especially when it spends most of its run-time trying to avoid just that. The song playing in the closing shot is more than just a little ridiculous (I wont reveal the track). Still, the sinister chirping of nature, paired with the macho-posturing of this particular Nebraskan landscape is terrifying in its distillation of intolerance, blind fury, and cultural indignation. “Take Me to the River” – opening Friday, April 22 at Landmark’s Ken Cinema – is powerfully observant, despite its anticlimactic tonal changes.