When Gail (Meryl Streep), a former river guide, takes her son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello) on a white-water rafting ride, little does she know what fate holds in store for her. Before boarding the inflatable raft, she meets a handsome, young fellow boater named Wade (Kevin Bacon), who makes a good impression on Roarke. Then there's the last minute arrival of Gail's fuddy- duddy husband Tom (David Strathairn). Wade's raft, which also will carry his friend Terry (John C. Reilly) and an apparently wounded river guide, is launched first. Next comes the launching of the raft carrying Gail, her family and their dog Maggie.
Things start out pleasant enough, with Gail's and Wade's rafts leap-frogging position each time one or the other stops for a break. When one of these chance meetings reveals the absence of Wade's guide, Gail allows them to use her expertise by having them match her raft's movements down the river. Because the rafting trip will takes several days, this situation requires that Gail and her family stay close to the two men for much of the time.
Eventually, Wade and Terry begin doing things which worry the protective parents. A ploy is then devised to re-separate the groups; a ploy which backfires badly. Suddenly the river isn't the only thing life-threatening about the rafting trip.
Although many movies set up gimmicks which are initially insignificant but later become important, few are as obvious as "The River Wild". The fact that each of the family members can communicate in sign language, due to their close relationship with Gail's deaf father, is one you know won't be forgotten about when the action starts heating up. Others, such as the ability to understand the meaning of an Indian smoke signal, are just as obvious and trite.
"The River Wild" is better than director Curtis Hanson's last flick, "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle", but then how could it not be with the likes of Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon. Those in desperate need of suspense-thriller infusion may be able to overlook the film's flaws and enjoy the emotional roller coaster ride. Others will want to look elsewhere for entertainment.