I feel like Turn the River is the kind of movie that does just about everything well but not great, with the whole being equal to or a bit less than the sum of its parts. That is, I can’t put my finger on much if anything that’s a significant weakness, and I maintained at least a decent level of interest in the film throughout, but in the end it didn’t affect me in any kind of a deep way, and I don’t see it as the kind of movie that’s going to stick in my memory.
It is the story of a woman scrounging to survive on what she can hustle in poker games and pool rooms. Eleven years earlier, she had married a rich teenager a few years younger than her, gotten pregnant, and then been pressured into a divorce and giving up her child by the controlling mother-in-law, and she has been secretly exchanging letters with and occasionally seeing her son ever since.
She and her son are very close, perhaps in part because she can be the “favorite aunt” type who adores him and has fun with him in their stolen moments together, but who doesn’t have the responsibilities of parenting. Plus it’s pretty clear the father is an ogre, so the mostly absent mother becomes somewhat of an idealized figure to the boy.
She decides that now is the time to snatch him (which he is all for) and flee to Canada. Unfortunately she finds out it’ll cost $60,000 to do it right with fake passports and such (isn’t that wildly high?—I don’t know), so she sets out to hustle that much playing pool.
The acting in this movie is solid. The main character is fine, and Rip Torn as the crusty pool room owner is very good as always. I liked the understated performance of the son also. Evidently from being afraid of his father he’s learned to be cautious and approval-seeking, but it’s not like he’s in a shell or all messed up. He seems like a genuinely good kid.
There’s some nuance to the father that I appreciated as well. I was getting used to rooting against him, when they threw in a scene of him sort of awkwardly reaching out to his son in a kindhearted way. It’s “too little too late” to be any kind of redemption, but at least it adds a bit of complexity to the character. It gives you more the sense that he’s weak and pitiful rather than malevolent.
The grittiness of the atmosphere and people in the pool room and the movie as a whole I thought was only OK, though I’ve seen it praised in multiple reviews.
And not that it’s impossible for a woman to be good at things like poker and pool, but to have her be this dominant struck me as more a novelty thing for a movie than something realistic.
Plus if she’s that good, why doesn’t she have more money? When she announces that she needs $60,000 on almost no notice, she and Torn almost immediately set up some games where she can get it. Well, why haven’t they been doing that all along?
The pool sequences didn’t draw me in more than a little. The Hustler this ain’t.
I appreciated the fact that after looking like it was developing toward a predictable “happy ending” of the woman and her son living happily ever after free of the bad father and the bad mother-in-law, it didn’t play out quite that way.
Overall, the characters and situations are somewhat interesting, but don’t fully live up to their potential. Turn the River is a reasonably entertaining film with no major flaws, but I can give it no more than a mild recommendation.