Set between World War I and The Great Depression, it follows the lives of Norman (Sheffer) and Paul (Pitt) Maclean, two brothers from Missoula, Montana who are as different as can be... except for a mutual love of fly fishing, a passion instilled in them at an early age by their father John (Skerritt), a stern but loving Presbyterian minister. The film depicts the brothers' changing relationship as they transition from childhood into adolescence and finally adulthood, while exploring themes of Transcendentalism along the way.
The film was well received by critics, with particular praise given to Redford's direction and Pitt's star-making performance as Paul. It won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and also received nominations for Best Original Score and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in feature film debut, appears as young Norman.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptational Context Change: Paul was murdered in Chicago at the age of 32 while working there as a journalist. The circumstances surrounding his death remain unsolved.
- Adapted Out: In real life, Norman and Paul Maclean had five sisters left out of the adaptations.
- The Alcoholic:
- Jessie's brother, Neal.
- Paul might qualify as well.
- Bittersweet Ending: The story ends up somewhere in between this and a Downer Ending. Paul is murdered offscreen over his gambling debts, which leaves their parents devastated and Norman says that they barely spoke of it afterwards. Norman, on the other hand, marries Jessie and has a family, living a full life to an old age... except that he also outlives his wife and most if not all of his friends, so his story kind of turns out sad as well. The movie finally ends with him as an old man, fishing alone in a river, while the narration monologues about the serenity of fly fishing and the timelessness of water.
- Book Ends: The film opens and closes with an elderly man (Norman) fly fishing alone in a river.
- Brick Joke: Paul predicts that Neal will show up for their fishing trip with a coffee can full of worms for bait. He's correct.
- Distant Finale: Ends with Norman, an old man, fishing in the river alone.
- The Dutiful Son: Norman.
- The Film of the Book
- The Gambling Addict: Paul, with disastrous consequences.
- Hope Spot: Despite Norman's fears to the contrary, Paul does show up to go fishing with him and their father near the end like he promised. The fishing expedition goes well, and Paul succeeds in catching the biggest fish yet while Norman's narration describes it as a perfect moment — but then admits that he knows it won't last. He's proven right, as Paul continues to rebuff his attempts to help him out of his dangerous gambling situation."And I knew just as surely, just as clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last."
- Love at First Sight: Norman is smitten with Jessie the first time he sees her.
- Maligned Mixed Marriage: Paul's girlfriend is Native American. On that account, he gets hassled over going into a speakasy with her (they have a rule against it) but talks them down. Later, he hits a guy for insulting her too.
- MayDecember Romance: Jessie's father is old enough to be her mother's father.
- Naked People Are Funny: After Norman and Paul's failed attempt at taking Jessie's brother, Neal, fishing, the brothers find Neal and the girl he brought with him passed out together in the grass, naked. After several moments of wide-eyed chagrin over what Jessie will think when she finds out, they start cracking jokes about the tattoo on the girl's buttocks.
- No Fish Were Harmed: "The producers would like to point out that, although the Macleans kept their catch as was common earlier in this century, enlightened fisherman today endorse a 'catch and release' policy to assure that this priceless resource swims free to fight another day. Good fishing."
- Non P.O.V. Protagonist: Paul. See Out of Focus.
- Nostalgic Narrator: The now-elderly Norman, whose narration was taken directly from Maclean's book. Interestingly enough, it's read by Robert Redford, rather than Craig Sheffer.
- Oh, Crap!: The brothers' reaction to finding Neal asleep after their fishing trip. Buck naked. In full sunlight. He ends up with a truly horrific sunburn.
- Out of Focus: Norman and Paul are both the central characters of the film, but due to Norman's status as the narrator, Paul's storyline is only given focus when Norman is around to witness or comment on it. This becomes especially glaring with the issue of Paul's gambling addiction, which is one of the major conflicts of the story and directly results in Paul's death, but happens almost entirely offscreen.
- Preacher's Kid: Norman and Paul's father is a Presbyterian minister. The former grows up into a responsible, straight-laced man while the latter doesn't, leading to tragedy.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Norman's blue to Paul's red.
- A Round of Drinks for the House: Paul, when he thinks he's on a lucky streak.
- Scenery Porn: It won best cinematography for a reason, after all.
- Serious Business: For the Macleans, it's fly fishing.Paul: "Neal, in Montana, there's three thing we're never late for: church, work, and fishing."
- Small Town Boredom: Played With. Norman does not keep in close contact with his parents after going off to university, but on coming back he remembers all the things he loved about rural life. Paul, on the other hand, refuses to leave Montana even when his life is at stake.
- Technician Versus Performer: The brothers' fly-fishing techniques reflect their differing personalities: Norman, the more dutiful son, adheres to the technique they were taught by their father, while the more adventurous Paul branches out and adopts a rhythm of his own.
- Time-Shifted Actor: A very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears as younger Norman, with Vann Gravage appearing as young Paul.
- Title Drop: During the final monologue."Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it."