The theme music welcomes us to the world of white water rapids through gentle country song. It’s folksy and down to earth cadence sets the tone for the rest of the movie. That tone is telling me that meandering is acceptable and encouraged. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Let the entertainment wash over you in gentle caressing waves and let the movie whisk you away on an adventure through the American heartland; the Grand Canyon. It’s like the pig-tailed girl in the movie said; it’s named Grand for a reason. Bask in its natural glory. The savage water ripples through the state at a furious pace, but unlike its namesake the movie Savage Water moves when it damn well pleases. It’s in no rush and neither should you be.
There are a lot of characters in this movie, but the more the merrier right? Some have very few lines and kind of look like other people in the crew, but those crazy coincidences happen in real life, and Savage Water seems to pride itself on true grit and authenticity. Why else would it spend so much time going over real life safety instructions for rafters? There are many lines that are just purely conversational and irrelevant to the main thrust of the plot, but its all cream cheese because it’s scenery chewing baby, and remember we ain’t in no rush. I ended up thinking of characters as bearded man #2, or pig tail girl, or German tourist guy. We spend a lot of time getting cozy with these people, but it feels very natural and informal. I don’t care about their names but their faces are etched into my heart. Awwww.
About an hour in you will begin to ask yourself if this is a horror movie or some breezy recollection of a fun summer trip. Maybe it’s both, but it’s definitely more than that. Savage Water is life. Life flows at different speeds; there are sags and swells. Art imitates life, and Savage Water does so beautifully. You won’t give a shit that there isn’t a hint of terror or bloodshed forty plus minutes in because you are just taking that lazy raft down the river; living life.
There is one black man in the movie. You know because the black guy says “I’m the first black man on this trip.” I’m glad he said he was black because he looked like a white guy with an afro to me, but who am I to argue? In true horror movie fashion the poor guy is the first to go, but if all the warning signs for his early departure weren’t enough, they make him a drug nut as well, completely sealing his fate. His death is a little confusing despite initial appearances. It looks like he is pushed off a rock pile, then moments later he lands in water, bruised and cut up from something, but totally dead. Were the cuts from the rocks? Did he tumble into the water? It doesn’t seem to make a difference, when the rest of the crew find out he was snorting coke....well it had to be a drug related death. Good riddance.
What’s more shocking than any of the actual deaths is the way the rafters react to the news. It’s kind of a casual response, like they were being told the pizza would be late for dinner or they need to pick up more dog food on the way home from work. They decide it best to continue with their trip and just tell the authorities when they get back. Can’t let one black druggie ruin your fun can we? They decide to pack the body in cold sand and pick it up later if anybody even bothers to remember. There are some random signs of stress later as the body-count mounts, but for the most part it is very subdued. Perhaps the callous way they continue their trip speaks to one of the larger themes of the movie that is touched upon later; the worthlessness and devalue of a life cut short by tragedy.
The mischievous child of the group gets bit by a rattlesnake placed in his sleeping bag by an unseen suspect. His father holds him tight and expresses all his hopes and dreams of raising his son to be a good person, of connecting with him on this trip, but it is all for naught. It almost seems as if the movie forgets about the kid after this scene, but maybe I'm not remembering things right. I can only assume he succumbed to the rattlesnake bite, but like so many other things in this movie as it is with life itself, the waters are muddy. There is only one thing that’s clear…the waters can be savage.
Later a blonde bombshell is stabbed in the neck and the crew reacts immediately. This was obvious foul play and that chick was the hottest one on the trip; so one of the boat skippers volunteers to go for help and medicine. After posing shirtless on the lush green countryside in short shorts he tries to scale a mountain in his path but tragically falls to his death. At this point we are up to three movie deaths and not one is the fault of water. Come to think of it, nobody ever dies by drowning or anything water related.
Here we begin to get to the crux of the film, right down the white foamy center of the Savage Water. The rafters are led by a river guide named Dave Savage. Dave Savage sees the skipper fall to his death, which triggers past memories of Dave’s beloved falling to her fate sometime in his past. Dave goes into a crazy diatribe about how life doesn’t matter when it all boils down to falling off a mountain. Wait a minute, the guy’s name is “Savage”, and his past is mired in tragedy? Gongs should be going off in long time slasher fan’s ears.
Dave’s view that life is essentially a worthless and pointless exercise when it can be robbed at any point seems to be the crux of the movie and strange motivation for killing. I thought he was killing the rafters because they were annoying assholes, but I was way off the mark. Perhaps the amount of frivolous dialogue, the large cast, and random encounters throughout the movie has more purpose than burning running time in the film. Maybe because so many elements of the movie never added up to anything that is precisely what the film makers were trying to highlight; life is worthless, it doesn’t add up to anything. Perhaps I am giving the film makers too much credit here, but that’s the meaning I prefer to extrapolate from this forgotten gem. That and “your life vest is supposed to be uncomfortable.”
The deaths continue, but nobody amongst the rafters puts together the pieces, they end up blaming the worldly doctor character because he’s “weird”. I guess I can't blame them , the guy talks about toying with insanity and picks flowers. KILL HIM! The rafters pull together a lynch mob with disturbing ease for a modern society, but Dave promptly stops them. You would think he would want them to go ahead and blame someone else for the killing absolving him of any suspicion, but it isn’t clear if he realizes he is the killer. Like the savage waters of the Mississippi the outlook is murky. Other people watching the movie with me were even convinced the doctor was the killer despite all the inner turmoil of Dave Savage; so you know Savage Waters casts a strange spell over its audience (i.e. boredom and confusion). Even at the end when Dave cuts the rope of a climber, letting him fall to his death, you still can’t be sure he killed the others on the trip or if the even was isolated. Given the amount of information the audience receives you really can’t plant your flag anywhere. The savage water will tumble you around so much you can’t be sure of which way is up anymore. Just go with the flow. Don’t exhaust yourself swimming against the current; accept savage water as it is and it will accept you.
I’ve heard nasty rumors that Savage Water was a big floating piece of dog shit, but I disagree. Savage Waters charmed the life vest off me, and it will roll you over too, but you have to watch it the right way, with zero expectations. You can’t even expect to be entertained. You can’t expect coherency. It’s almost like you’ve got to pretend the police sent you this family vacation video and you have to watch it and report in some official capacity about its contents. It might not make sense at the moment but the police chief expects results so better pay attention, and you don’t want to disappoint the chief. For the first rough hour of the film I had hardly expected it to ever become a horror movie, or slasher yarn or anything in between. I was just content to be taken away with these people on this white waters rafting trip, to be swept away in their cozy little crew. Maybe if Savage Water had a fault is that it has too much charm and wears its heart on its sleeve. Yeah…that’s it. Even at the end I didn’t feel like Dave deserved any retribution or punishment. The guy is just too nice for that. Everybody has “off” days.
There’s so much more I want to say about this movie, but it pretty much boils down to Savage Water being the turbulent and unpredictable waters of destiny, and that destiny can be a cruel bitch, like falling off a mountain. Its people swimming, rolling in mud, girls take off their shirt; one man says “hubba, hubba”, and things carry on this way for a while and your screen looks like diarrhea slop with people swimming in it for a full minute. That’s Savage Water.