For reasons unknown to me, director James Merendino signed this film as Allen Smithee, a usual sign of discomfort with the final product, or meaning a clash between producers and director. Although producer Jon Powell appears twice in an important role, it is still strange because "River Made To Drown In" is a very good film that in its own way conveys the same feeling of despair and love for youth-as-art found in "Death in Venice" but in the 90s. Written by Paul Marius (who plays the owner of a sex club), it is a perceptive look at the relationship between young male prostitutes and their much older clients ("johns"). These are usually men beyond their 60s who still seek quick and impersonal sex among young guys who could care less for their old-age anguish. Richard Chamberlain plays Thaddeus MacKenzie, an old lawyer with AIDS, who wants to spend his last days with the only two persons he loved, two young hustlers. Allen Hayden (Michael Imperioli) has changed his life style and has become an artist. He is having an affair with Eva (Ute Lemper), a wealthy gallery owner who knows nothing about his past. The other one is even younger, Jaime (James Duval), the son of an ex model and a Buddhist monk, who wants to raise enough money to go visit his father. It is interesting that a young man like Marius, has come with an incisive story and some keen dialogues that could have been written by someone older and perhaps "wiser". What makes the Allen Smithee credit more intriguing is that Merendino is a filmmaker with real talent for directing actors, for composition, and with a good eye for expressing the inherent affective dislocation of the story. He receives good help from cinematographer Thomas Callaway, whose angles, use of cranes, hand-held camera or play with depth of field, convey the distortion of these people’s lives. On the other hand, editor Esther P. Russell has made a very good job to suggest the fragmentation of the daily experience of these persons. Her cross-cutting between different scenes transforms dialogues to an extent that they have greater meaning because of her editing: take, for example, the dialogue between Thaddeus and Eva on a bench, while both Allen and Jaime are involved in different places, in unpleasant situations with clients. There is no place for silly sentimentality or gratuitous sex scenes here (unless they have been cut), although the story is about love and sex between men: it is an almost heartless film, as most of the characters are. But even then, Merendino and Marius show real affection for these people, and have made a very rewarding and intelligent feature on the hustler scene.
Reviewed by Edgar Soberón Torchia