Where the Rivers Flow North

Directed by Jay Craven. Starring Rip Torn, Tantoo Cardinal, Michael J. Fox, Bill Raymond, Treat Williams. (1994, PG-13, 106 min.)

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 29, 1994

The basic story is a familiar one: people fighting to protect their land and their established way of life from the encroachments of “progress” and modern civilization. Set in the backwoods of Vermont in 1927, Where the Rivers Flow North is adapted from a regional novella by Howard Frank Mosher. It tells the story of an unlikely pair: Noel Lord (Torn), an aging log driver with flowing gray hair, a crusty temperament, and a hook for a hand, and Bangor (Cardinal), Lord's housekeeper/companion/lover over the decades, who wears men's clothing, refers to herself in third person, and calls Lord “mister.” She is also missing a front tooth and is slightly but indefinably daft. The drama evolves as the power company tries to buy up Lord's land and chop down all the trees in order to build a hydroelectric dam. Yet lack of drama is the essential problem with this beautifully shot, low-budget independent film. The film builds little tension and constructs sequences flaccidly, relying too heavily on our familiarity with these stock homesteader-developer conflicts and inserting one-note stereotypes in the villainous roles (Fox, Raymond). What the drama's weakness leaves us with, however, is a blessing. The strength of the movie is the character studies of Lord and Bangor. And here, Torn and Cardinal do things up right. Both actors get inside these rare and indomitable characters and generate some real memorable material. The longevity of the pair's quirky relationship is thoroughly believable yet its contours are conveyed through the subtleties of their interactions rather than emotive and explanatory speeches. In some ways, Where the Rivers Flow North echoes an earlier independent homesteader/romance/new frontier film, Heartland (which also starred Rip Torn). Both movies place an uncommon female character at the center of their stories. Cardinal's Bangor is likely to strike you as one of the most unusual women you've ever seen in a movie. This independent backwoods Indian survivor is a simultaneous study in coarseness and grace, peppered with enough oddities and quirks to make Bangor a singular character. Cardinal has previously played roles in Dances With Wolves and Sam Shepard's Silent Tongue. Though her performances have always been outstanding, Bangor is, potentially, the role that could launch Cardinal into much-deserved prominence.

More Rip Torn Films
Marie Antoinette
Don’t fear the film’s early reviews from Cannes, which too often slighted it for being fluffy (it isn’t, though its heroine is) or ahistorical (it isn’t, though it is contemporary).

Marrit Ingman, Oct. 20, 2006

This superhero sci-fi farce drags its feet, while the sappy sweetness will make you wince.

Toddy Burton, Aug. 18, 2006

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
Get Out
A stellar racially charged horror comedy

Feb. 24, 2017

Rock Dog
It's a dog … that rocks!

Feb. 24, 2017


Where the Rivers Flow North, Jay Craven, Rip Torn, Tantoo Cardinal, Michael J. Fox, Bill Raymond, Treat Williams

This content has not been formatted for this window size.
Please increase the size of your browser window, or revisit this page on a mobile device.
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2017

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)