Sundance 2009 Review – Big River Man

Director: John Maringouin
U.S.A./United Kingdom, 2008, 94 mins., color

Big River Man


“Who is the greatest swimmer of all time? Michael Phelps? Mark Spitz? If gold medals are your barometer, then maybe, but I’d like to see either of them drink two bottles of wine a day and still swim the length of the Amazon river. This feat is attempted by Martin Strel, an endurance swimmer from Slovenia, who swims rivers—the Mississippi, the Danube, and the Yangtze to date—to highlight pollution in the world. In his fifties and rather overweight, his treacherous journey brings him face to face with many obstacles, including water predators, rapids, and toxic pollution. Spearheading the expedition is Strel’s son and manager, who also becomes the film’s narrator. As the days go by, Strel’s physical fortitude is strained, along with his relationship with his son and his grip on reality. Part world-class sporting event, part circus sideshow, the film follows the colorful characters 3,375 miles over 66 days on history’s longest, most perilous swim.Director John Maringouin explicitly understands the many dimensions of Strel’s journey and crafts an almost-expressionistic portrait of the event. Utilizing breathtaking and intimate cinematography, he captures the journey along the Amazon and into the heart of Strel’s darkness. Big River Man is a psychological thrill ride that works as both a humorous character study and an enlightening environmental message; it has to be seen to be believed.”

John Maringouin’s Big River Man seemed to have a bit of buzz surrounding it at this years festival. I kept hearing comparison’s to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which is definitely a good thing. Unfortunately, the film just didn’t live up to my expectations. That’s not to say it was a bad movie, but I just thought there was something missing. Maringouin seemed set on trying something different, which is a good thing. However, the film attempts to balance the straight forward with the quirky, resulting in something that seemed a touch unfocused. Martin Strel (The Big River Man himself) definitely leads a bizarre lifestyle, but the man himself never really seemed too interesting. He was mostly quiet, even when he wasn’t in the water. We hear much more from his son/manager, who happens to narrate the film. And although there were some funny moments, I felt like a more straight forward approach to the subject matter may have worked a little better. I don’t know, maybe I’m condemning everything that’s unique about Big River Man, but it just didn’t work for me. In particular, the section of the film in which Strel goes temporarily insane; it just felt insincere and completely built in the editing room. That’s not accusatory; I just thought it was long and unnecessary. Maybe it fulfilled the role of some needed conflict? In this case, I think man versus nature was more interesting than man versus himself. On the positive side, I will say I loved the ending. Great use of an awesome Brian Eno song and some solid narration.

Overall, I think I’d like to give Big River Man another shot on DVD. For now, I’d say I was a little disappointed with it’s wavering tone and lack of focus. Still, I would recommend you check it out.


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