From his non-fiction to short stories to novels, best-selling novelist N.D. Wilson seeks to introduce (or reintroduce) his audiences to the “wide-eyed wonder of God’s spoken world.” Simply put, Wilson is a herald of enchantment and grace. His novels call us to see the world through a different lens, one that sees the the extraordinary as inextricably linked to the ordinary. Recently, however, Wilson has embarked on a very different kind of storytelling adventure. Armed with a tiny production budget and a mere three weeks to write a script and wrap principal photography, Wilson traded his pen for a camera; and now, only a few months after treating us to a delightful genre-hopping adventure earlier this year in Outlaws of Time, Wilson is ready to offer to the world The River Thief, his first feature-length narrative film.
Much like Wilson’s written works, The River Thief is a film enchanted and enthralled by the mundane and the ordinary.
The River Thief tells the story of Diz (Joel Courtney), a teenage vagrant who who thieves his way through the small Idaho-Washington border towns nestled into the banks of the Snake River. Accustomed to taking whatever he needs or wants, Diz makes his way into yet another town, but this time he finds something that he can’t steal: a girl named Selah (Raleigh Cain). In a desperate attempt to win—or rather, buy—the young lady’s affections, Diz ends up stealing from a local drug ring and finds himself on the run once again. In the midst of this flight for his life, Diz is also forced to make sense of the incredible kindness shown to him by Selah’s adoptive grandfather, Marty (Tommy Cash).
Much like Wilson’s written works, The River Thief is a film enchanted and enthralled by the mundane and the ordinary. Indeed the earthiness—the childlike fascination with the natural world—that pervades his young adult novels is unmistakably present in this film. Making the most of the incredibly haunting and ethereal shooting location in Hell’s Canyon, Wilson deftly seasons his chase narrative with cutaways that force us to stop, breathe, and marvel at the magic of everyday reality. Watery reflections on the underside of a bridge, the kaleidoscopic sprinkling of sunbeams through overhead foliage, and even the bowels of a bowling alley: under Wilson’s guiding hand these settings, moments, and fleeting images become repositories of grace and beauty. The River Thief is a reminder that every breath and heartbeat and step is a gift for which we should be eternally grateful. (It also shows that Wilson is quickly becoming as adept at using a camera as he is a pen.)
At its heart, however, The River Thief is about the radical world-bending nature of grace and the multitudinous ways in which it is met with and overcomes resistance. Diz, the film’s titular thief, is both most obviously in need of redemption and most resistant to Marty’s charity. We see this perhaps most clearly in the scene where he meets Marty and Selah for the first time. Diz wanders into the diner where Selah works and gets ready to perform his customary dine and dash routine. Before he is able to get off scot-free, however, Selah confronts him; then Marty, who was also in the diner, intervenes. He pays for Diz’s meal and invites him over for dinner later that evening to discuss some work he needs done at his house. Diz is understandably shocked by this gesture of kindness, but so is Selah. She scoffs at Marty’s so-called solution to the problem and is ready to write off Diz as a piece of river scum. In this sense, therefore, The River Thief can be seen as a reimagining of a parable Christ told in the gospel of Luke. The story is most commonly referred to as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” but a number of theologians and biblical scholars prefer the title of “The Parable of the Two Sons” precisely because the parable in its original context was intended to highlight the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the day, showing them to be in need of God’s grace just as much as the prodigal unbelievers. In the same way, The River Thief turns on its head the idea that villains and thieves are the only ones in need of saving grace by putting Selah in the spotlight. As her anger wells up when she sees Marty repeatedly extending kindness to Diz, we begin to see that she has become ungrateful for the grace she has received. She is—to frame the story in relation to Christ’s parable—the self-righteous older brother.
In a very real sense The River Thief embodies the paradoxical nature of the grace of which it speaks; it exists in a kind of uncharted territory in filmmaking. It is simultaneously too faith-based for a major production company and too honest for a faith-based company. To put it another way, the frankness with which The River Thief handles its explicitly Christian themes and underpinnings is typically a characteristic of faith-based films; yet the film’s depiction of evil, its representations of violence, as well as its refusal to settle for an easy and cheap narrative resolution puts it fundamentally at odds with the faith-based filmmaking industry. N.D. Wilson has charted a bold new path that Christians making faith-based films would do well to follow: much like the parable after which it’s patterned, the message of The River Thief is secondary to its storytelling, which only serves to make its message more powerful.
[The River Thief is available in select theaters nationwide and on VOD on October 14th.]