The first time I saw “Take Me to the River” was at its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, but while watching the movie again more than a year later, its impact came rushing back to me in the first few minutes. I felt that tightness in my chest and stomach, that mix of anticipation of a film you know is terrific and the dread of knowing you’re about to be put through the wringer.
It’s the feeling repeat viewers get when they watch Janet Leigh check into the Bates Motel, or when Ruth Gordon gives Mia Farrow a pendant with some tannis root in it. “Take Me to the River” isn’t a horror movie, but then it’s not not a horror movie, either. It’s a slowly tightening vise, all about suspicion and hostility and resentments and what people aren’t talking about when they talk to each other.
A stunning debut feature from writer-director Matt Sobel, “Take Me to the River” is Polanski, with cicadas.
Roger Ebert often spoke of movies that were frustrating because the plot could be solved by a five-minute conversation that no one is having, but what gives this film such power is the dark burden that secrets place upon the lives of its characters and the toxicity that forms when we’re not honest with each other.
The subterfuge begins in the opening scene, a car ride that takes teenager Ryder (Logan Miller, “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) and his parents Cindy (Robin Weigert, “Deadwood”) and Don (Richard Schiff) to a family reunion in Nebraska. Ryder wants to be open with Cindy’s relatives about the fact that he’s gay, but Cindy asks him to avoid bringing up any touchy subjects.
At a barbecue the next day, 9-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker, “Louie”) attaches herself to her “California cousin.” (Ryder, angry about having to go back into the closet, wears red short-shorts, a deep-V-neck T-shirt and yellow sunglasses.) Molly asks Ryder to take her to the barn on the property, where she wants to climb on the hay bales and reach up to the birds’ nests in the eaves.
What happens next takes place off camera, but a screaming, bleeding Molly comes running back to the house, followed by a perplexed Ryder. He insists nothing untoward happened, but Molly’s father — Cindy’s brother Keith (Josh Hamilton) — becomes furious, threatening bodily harm to Ryder and not allowing Cindy, a physician, to examine the girl.
And so begins a sequence of events whereby old family resentments are aired (Keith stayed in Nebraska to take care of the farm while Cindy went west for grad school) and shocking secrets emerge. The airing and the emerging, however, don’t take place in the grandly soap-operatic manner to which we’ve become accustomed in film and television. Instead, bits of information have to be gleaned from between the lines, as Ryder feels the escalating tension (including hateful graffiti on the family car, which Cindy, who constantly operates in no-really-everything-is-fine mode, can’t hide from her mother and husband fast enough).
The second half of the movie involves Keith sending another daughter over to invite Ryder to an apology lunch that’s as nail-biting as any action sequence that features a bomb and a big red digital read-out. Hamilton has a way of smiling and glad-handing that’s more unsettling than Keith’s violent temper, and that entire section of the film is a brilliant exercise in making the audience wait for the other shoe to drop.
Veteran character actor Hamilton is one player in a formidable ensemble — relative newcomer Miller guides us through this unknown and possibly dangerous world, making viewers feel his panic and outsider-dom at every step. Parker, so extraordinary as the younger daughter on “Louie,” continues to demonstrate her gifts at mixing childlike naturalism with potentially disturbing adult topics, while Weigert gives us peeks behind the mask of a perfectionist steeped in denial. (Following the exposure of a long-buried incident, Cindy tells Ryder, “And now we don’t have to talk about this or think about this ever again.”)
Editor Jacob Secher Schulsinger previously worked on “Force Majeure,” another movie about discomfiting family revelations, and he and Sobel never let the pace slack in a tight 84-minute running time. Even when Sobel cuts away from the achingly brittle dialogue sequences, cinematographer Thomas Scott Stanton shoots trees thick with summer leaves and fields of wildflowers like waves in the sea, beautiful but also capable of devouring you whole.
“Take Me to the River” is a film I’ll definitely come back to again and again — even though the thought of another viewing is giving me that familiar clench in the chest.