THE RIVER RAT (1984) A clumsy but quiet southern character study that devolves into some type of road-travel-via-boat blackmail-caper when Brian Dennehy shows up.

The River RatTheme Song: Mike Post did the original music for this film. You may remember Post as the producer of your favorite Van Halen album, Van Halen III. He also composed the theme songs for Law & Order, NYPD Blue, L.A. Law, and Magnum, P.I..

In addition to the original music, there’s also a terrible song by Alabama called “Rock On The Bayou” and a terrible song by Autograph called “Take No Prisoners.” I didn’t bother to upload them because I am in a hurry.

Interesting Dated References: When called on to swim, immediately converting your jeans into jean-shorts with a knife while still wearing them; Poison ivy exposure turning you into a boil-covered mess.

Best Line: Asked by daughter to father — “When guys rape each other, what do they do, exactly?”

Social Context: Adults being interested in reconnecting with their estranged children; Children caring what adults think.

Summary: Jonsy the teenage tomboy (“introducing Martha Plimpton”) is being raised by her grandmother on the banks of the Mississippi River, where they own a bait shop, which also sort of seems like a convenience store. Jonsy passes the time catching fish, fixing up an old boat, and talking with her much younger friend Wexel, who is probably the saddest looking little black kid you’ve ever seen.

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Grandma yells at Jonsy to get her ass to school while Wexel sits around the bait shop and tells Grandma about his voodoo-practicing aunt who he’s extremely scared of. Then Sheriff Cal stops by to let Grandma know that her son Billy (Jonsy’s dad), who has been in jail for the last 13 or 14 years, is getting released and going to come home.

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So Jonsy and Grandma immediately go pick up Billy (played by Tommy Lee Jones of Tommy Lee Jones-fame) at the local bus depot. He doesn’t say much and barely even acknowledges Jonsy. Once back at the bait shop, he wanders around the property and continues to not say much, so Jonsy decides to ask him about prison and prison rape.

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The next day, father and daughter struggle to bond while out running errands on a lafitte boat. She asks him about the murder that put him in jail, but he doesn’t reply. Later that night, Jonsy overhears Billy and grandma talking about how Joyce (Jonsy’s mom) ran off and started a new life.

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After Billy does a few days worth of brooding by looking at a box of his old shit, Jonsy finally asks him to help her restore their shitty, old boat called The River Rat.

The River Rat

Then father and daughter discuss if Jonsy is a “lezzie” or not. Considering the three major discussions these two have had involves prison rape, murder, and lesbianism, these two are really making a lot of progress with familial bonding. After The River Rat is all fixed up, Jonsy asks her dad if they can boat down to Memphis. Billy agrees, but his motives are questionable since the local legend says he hid some money from the murder near Memphis. Up until now The River Rat has been a somewhat clumsy southern character study dealing with an estranged father getting to know his daughter.

The River Rat

But then there’s a massive fucking tonal shift when Brian Dennehy shows up and the movie devolves into some type of travel-by-boat blackmail caper. Dennehy plays Dr. Cole, the prison psychologist who arranged for Billy’s release. As part of their agreement, Billy told Cole he’d give him a portion of the money he stashed after the murder. The problem is, Billy isn’t really sure where he stashed it.

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So he takes Cole out on the boat and tries to throws him overboard. The next morning he leaves for Memphis with Jonsy and Wexel (who had stowed away on their ship knowing there would be some tense action that needed thinning out with an adorably small. precocious black child).

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All the precociousness in the world can’t help save yet another awkward tonal shift as the trio docks on a sand barge to do some boat maintenance.

The River Rat

Rather than help, Joyce decides to go skinny-dipping as barge workers who enjoy the miserable music stylings of Alabama watch. When Billy realizes what’s going on, Joyce decides to start ranting about social acceptance of nudity and it’s oppressive connection to incest.

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Apparently that was traumatic enough that Billy is persuaded into telling Jonsy via flashback why he was in jail.

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Billy, Joyce, and his friend Whitey all broke into some old lady’s house to steal money. Whitey shot the old lady, but then he died in a fiery car accident during the subsequent police chase. That left Billy to take the rap, but not before he was able to stash the money in a graveyard.

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The group arrives in Memphis and decides to follow meaningless subplots by paying a visit to Joyce and her stuck-up, hair-metal-loving daughter. Then they return to the boat and find a non-dead Dr. Cole waiting. Somewhere in there, Cole killed the local junkyard manager and put a necklace of Billy’s in the corpse’s hand to make him look like the guilty party and uses this information to force Billy to show him where the money is.

The River Rat

Unfortunately it’s night out, and as luck would have it, The River Rat can’t run at night (no lights). Everyone is forced to hang out at some type of dockside 80s dance party where people dance like it’s the fucking 80s to a song called “Maybe Next Time” by Bill Medley (½ of The Righteous Brothers). Then Dennehy tries to lighten the mood by buying Wexel some ice cream.

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Suddenly with no explanation, it’s still night out, but our group is now camping on a sandy beach in some type of makeshift tent made out of sticks and burlap. Then lightning strikes a barge the barge that was filled with the guys who were ogling Jonsy when she was skinny dipping, which crashes into their camp and sends everyone running.

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Don’t you understand that things have gone totally off the rails here? Did I mention that Brian Dennehy has been slowly swelling and sloughing skin because he killed the junkyard guy in a giant patch of poison ivy?

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So Billy and the kids head for the graveyard. He locates the crypt with the money, but not before a now insanely-swollen and boil-covered Dennehy can take the money. Billy and the kids hide because they are totally freaked out by how allergic Brian Dennehy is to poison ivy.

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The next morning Billy and his family are questioned by the cops. Some fishermen find Denehy and the money floating alive in the river. He is arrested and paraded past Jonsy, Wexel, and Billy. The cops send the trio on their way, and everyone is happy. Nobody seems to care about the money or the act that it was left floating in the river.

Poster and Box Art: Mixing airbrushing and photography together always looks a little awkward. In the poster, Jonsy and the background are all airbrushed, but then Tommy Lee Jones is floating in the sky as a real photo. It’s entirely possible the artist didn’t intend for Tommy Lee Jones to be on the poster and the producers added him in later after the illustration was done. I don’t know, that’s the only thing that seems to make sense. Any airbrush artist would normally jump at the chance to paint that chiseled, bumpy face of his.

Availability: The River Rat has not been released on DVD and has fallen out of print. You can watch the entire movie on YouTube or buy used VHS on Amazon.

One comment

  • This is a fairly accurate synopsis of The River Rat. It confirms that we all have questions about prison rape and nothing good happens when Brian Denehy’s character shows up. I too am super allergic to poison ivy, it really only takes one bad exposure and then you can spot the stuff from 50 ft away.

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