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Movie Review of "A River Runs Through It"

Updated on January 24, 2022
Nyamweya profile image

Nyamweya is a Kenyan scholar who has done many years of research on a diversity of topics.


The movie, A River Runs Through it, is an American film released in 1992. The movie was directed by Robert Redford and it was starring two brothers Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt, their father Tom Skerritt, Emilly Lloyd and Brenda Blethyn (Maclean 2009). This paper presents the analysis of the movie where there will be discussions on the plot, the themes discussed in the book and the main characters in the movie. This paper will also analyze the importance of applying the film to a couple or family therapy approach. A description of family assessment and family therapy interventions is also going to be included. I chose to work on this film because it helps uncover most mistakes parents make during parenting hence negatively affecting their children’s behavior.


The movie is a true story about the Maclean siblings, Paul and Norman, who grew up in Missoula, Montana together with their father, John, who was a Presbyterian Minister. The story starts when the two brothers are taught how to fish with their father who perceives fishing as a sacred act (Carr 2012). The boys then became successful fishermen as a result of their father’s teachings. As they grew older, it was Norman became the most disciplined and he liked studying whereas Paul liked having fun, he could drink a lot and he became the more skilled fly fisherman. After returning home, Norman attended a July 4th dance together with his friends where he met Jessie Burns who later became his wife. Paul became a newspaper reporter in Helena, the capital state where he annoyed many of the locals by engaging himself in poker games at Lolo, a place popularly known for gambling and prostitution. He also angered people by having an affair with a Blackfoot Indian woman called Mabel; the people regarded Mabel’s as a woman who came from an inferior race. A certain man insults Mabel and Paul gets into a fight with the man after which he is arrested by the police (Maclean 2009). The police then awaken Norman at midnight to bail out Paul. Jessie’s brother Neal, is disliked by both Norman and Paul for his self-centeredness, Neal keeps bragging about socializing with the Hollywood film stars. Jessie then insists that Norman should try to get along with his brother, after which Norman invites him to go fishing. Neal turns up while he is drunk and with a prostitute. The two brothers are determined to fish anyway, and when they get back to their cars after some hours, they find their beer drunk by Neal and his friend. Norman takes Neal home and finds Jessie waiting for them; she gets angry because his brother was not involved in the fishing activity. Jessie drives his brother home with anger, but after one week she asks Norman to go to the train station to see his brother off back to California. After the train’s departure, Norman tells Jessie that he has been offered a job in the University of Chicago as an English Literature teacher. Norman then proposes to Jessie to marry him. Norman tells Paul about his new job and his marriage proposal to Jessie; he tries to convince Paul to travel with him and Jessie to Chicago but resists and says that he was never going to leave Montana. The two brothers together with their father go fly fishing one last time as a family before Norman leaves. Paul made a huge catch of fish and his father was proud of him. They then posed for several pictures with the huge catch that they were taking to their mother. Later after the fishing activity, the police contacts Norman where he is informed about Paul’s death after being beaten and that his right hand bones have been found broken. Norman goes home to tell his parents about the sad news. The movie then jumps ahead after some years to where a speech is being given by John in the presence of Mrs. Maclean, Jessie, Norman and their two children. The narrator says that passed on soon after his sermon and the very last scene is on Norman who is an aged man, back in river Montana where he and his family used to fish many years back. Norman mentions that almost everybody from his youth was dead and that the waters are haunting him.


The main theme in the movie A River runs through it is family. The movie talks about both family responsibilities and relationships. The family relationship is demonstrated in the movie because it focuses on the development of character rather than the development of the plot. There is much focus placed on the relationship of Norman with each member of his family. Norman captures the fragility of the relationship between family members as he demonstrates with his parents, his wife, his brother-in-law and especially with his brother Paul. Family responsibility is demonstrated as some of the events in the movie reveal, Norman generates the question of what responsibility does one hold in his or her family. Jessie sends his brother Neal to go on a fishing trip with Norman and Paul, with an expectation that the two brothers will be capable of curing Neal’s foolish nature. Neal ruins the fishing activity with a set of bad choices such as drinking and immorality. Norman and Paul bring up the question of family responsibility. Is an individual responsible for assisting his or her family members? Irrespective of unwelcomed help? And what if there is no help possible? Since Paul's addiction to drinking and gambling were not revealed, the issue of responsibility is further examined. Norman and together with his parents make trials to assist Paul, but eventually, they are unable to.

Major Characters

The main Characters in the movie A River runs through it are; the two brothers, Norman and Paul, their parents John Maclean and Mrs. Maclean, Norman's wife, Jessie and his brother-in-law Neal.

Significance of the films application to family therapy approach

Most family therapy approaches are linked to family system therapy which borrows from the systems thinking and views the family as an emotional unit (Goldenberg & Goldenberg 2012). The systems thinking assess the individual component of a system in relation to the whole system. When system thinking is made functional to families, it implies that an individual’s behavior stems from and cannot be separated from one’s original family. In the movie a river runs through it, we see Paul having certain undesirable traits such as drinking and gambling addiction, and he also like dating prostitutes. Norman tries to help Paul overcome his bad habits, but Paul would not let his brother help him. Norman even decides to invite Paul to travel with him to Chicago where he is going to begin his new job, but still, Paul resists and says he is never going to leave Montana. It seems that Norman is aware that Paul's habit have some foundation from their ancestors and other relatives and that is why he makes several attempts to help him, but he fails. Jessie's brother, Neal also has some undesirable characteristics as he is fond of bragging about having socialized with Hollywood Stars, he likes drinking and dates prostitutes too. Jessie understands his brother, and she is not impressed with his nature of living and the bad decisions he makes. Jessie tries to help Neal by urging Norman to get along with his brother. Norman invites Neal for fishing activity, and Jessie is hopeful that his brother is going to do something constructive rather than getting drunk. Neal disappoints Jessie as he does not participate in fishing; instead, he comes along with a prostitute and they get drunk until he is driven back home. We see both Norman and Jessie trying to assist their siblings to overcome their bad habit.

Family Assessment

Throughout the collecting of information for this evaluation, it is evident that the two brothers competed for their father’s attention. An insincere bond existed between John and his sons who only bonded through fly-fishing an activity that offers very minimal interaction. During fly-fishing there is little, or no communication and those participating are not in a close distant to each other.

Norman Maclean

Norman portrayed the classic birth order traits of the first born. According to Alfred Adler's research, an "oldest child" is often convinced that siblings will "outshine them," they are self-critical and a perfectionist, their parents have high anticipations of them, and they are "most likely to succeed." Other traits include taking care and protecting the siblings, elevated feeling of nervousness, and the ability to see things as right or wrong. Norman has a sense of guilt because he envied his brother and was sometimes spiteful towards him because things appeared to come so simple for Paul; Norman's girlfriend was interested in him, and he was highly favored by his parents since he always had a story to tell due to him leading an exciting life.

Paul Maclean

Paul was the second born and the youngest. According to Alder’s birth order characteristics, Paul is best described by the following traits; competitive and highly motivated, cooperative, and very ambitious. Other traits are easy going, charming and having a hard time to choose on how to handle their life.

Paul is believed to have suffered manic episodes; he was goal-oriented in his newspaper work coupled with pleasurable activities such as consuming excess alcohol, engaging in gambling activities and dating prostitutes. Symptoms of manic episodes are increased self-esteem, decreased call for sleep and increased goal oriented activities. Paul did not fear challenges because the last time they went fishing as a family, he took the risk of catching a big fish.

Reverend John Maclean

John had a distant connection with his sons. He was present physically but emotionally absent as a father. He portrays a combination of two parenting styles; Laissez-faire and dismissing as demonstrated by the family's act of keeping away from dealing with Paul's lifestyle and Paul not paying attention of his emotions.

Mrs. Maclean

Mrs. Maclean is supportive and submissive to her husband, and she loves her family so much. She remembered the day that she discontinued her two sons' fist fight. She was also upset when her sons stole a boat since everyone knew what they had done. Mrs. Maclean blamed her eldest son, Norman after that incident because he knew better. Paul surprised all of them by taking the blame. The two brothers fought but she never asked the reason behind their disputes, and this portrays her passive parenting style.

Family system analysis

The religious practices like setting grace have been “triangled” by the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Maclean so as to keep away from certain behaviors like the addictions that Paul had. In essence, Paul engaged in the behaviors of gambling, promiscuous sexual behavior and alcoholism to shun his outlook of being despised by his father. Another factor that added on to the boys’ negative behavior was the fact that they came from a ministry family and so they felt that people were always scrutinizing them.

Level of differentiation

There was a clear evidence of lack of communication between the family members. During their early adulthood, the two brothers were distant both relationally and in proximity. The family's discussions revolved around the adventures of Paul, and after his demise, the family clearly went bleak. The two brothers never saw any closeness between their parents and the father-son connection was only experienced during fly fishing. Rev. Maclean had a hard time showing love and care as he kept away from intimate activities with his sons. He never established open communication with his sons, and so they were unwilling to share information with him.

Multigenerational transmission

Multigenerational transmission is a situation in which certain family pattern replicates through generations (Sprenkle et al 2009). Mr. and Mrs. Maclean were both poor in communication and they did not even have intimate relationships. This lifestyle was transmitted to their children as they also shunned away from expressing themselves openly.

Family therapy interventions

Each family member will participate in the goal setting activity. Here, each member will provide the therapist on what they expect of the counseling journey and their ideas of how those expectations should be met. The family will mourn Paul using an emotionless pattern. Each member will write a note to Paul stressing how they feel about his death. These notes will be distributed among other family members.

To help in open communication in the family, there will be a weekly family counseling where communication skills will be practiced. Each person will write a journal thrice in a week about a specific feeling and the reason behind that feeling. The contents of these journals will be discussed weekly.

To help improve on intimacy, Rev. Maclean will be required to tell Mrs. Maclean how he cares for her every day. The two are supposed to go to a marriage seminar before the five-month counseling reassessment. Rev. Maclean and Norman will have to spend ample time together at least once in a month. Such feelings as disappointment, sadness, and anger will be expressed in individual therapy after which they will be discussed during family sessions. Each member will give two individual prayer requests to distribute to each other. These requests will be prayed for on a daily basis, and the requests will be updated if need be. The family will go to worship services together on a weekly basis for personal devotions. The success of this counseling intervention will be reassessed after five months. In this period it will be determined if the goals are being achieved or further sessions are required.


In conclusion, the movie A River runs through it is essential in improving the relationship among family members as it demonstrates the importance of open communication and an intimate relationship between parents and children and also between the parents themselves so as to avoid destructive behaviors like the ones Paul had that led to his death.


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