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The River Thief: A movie review


A new movie starring Joel Courtney, Raleigh Cain, and Tommy Cash, (Johnny’s brother), called The River Thief is out in selected theaters. It is being billed as a faith based movie, or a Christian movie.

For what is being said is a faith movie, it’s an unusual one, to be sure. However in my opinion it is far from being anything remotely Christian. It’s more of a freshman entry of an action movie from writer/director ND Wilson than it is anything faith-based.

The film focuses on a youth named Diz (Courtney) who drifts from town to town along the Snake River in Idaho, stealing to survive and also just for the fun of it because he’s good at it. He calls himself Diz, and though it’s never explicitly stated, we surmise the namesake is from St. Dismas. In Catholic tradition, St. Dismas was the name of the Penitent Thief on the Cross. Diz is a motherless boy turned drifter and thief whose father left before he was born. He is on his own, great at stealing, but now wanting a change in his life and haphazardly trying to find his long-lost dad as he goes from town to town.

Diz slows down and remains in and around one particular nameless town along the river, struck by the waitress in the local diner. Diz had racked up a $30 bill and snuck out without paying, the spitfire waitress named Selah (Raeleigh) chases after him and gives him a piece of her mind. Her granddad Marty (Cash) reaches out to Diz, paying his bill and inviting him to dinner at the house he shares with Selah.

During the course of events, Diz also unfortunately steals a million dollars in drug money from two men, one the town’s bad cop, the other named Clyde, who works for the Sinaloa Cartel. Diz clumsily attempts to woo Selah, fend off vague spiritual approaches by Marty, and survive the vicious intent of the bad guys to catch and skin Diz for making off with their million dollars. It all comes to a surprising conclusion and the credits roll with a voiceover.

First, the pros:

Lead actor Joel Courtney is a wonderful, natural actor. He was in Super 8 and his acting was well-received. Tommy Cash is the grandfather who is a little less a natural actor but is warm and sincere and generally seen as a good man by even the evil men. Marty rings true in the movie. Selah is spunky, bordering on angry-bitter. While her character is less developed and more perplexing, she has flashes of natural acting in several scenes as well.

The cinematography is stunning. The look of this movie is a stark beauty which bespeaks hopelessness and hope both at the same time. The aerial shots as well as the scenes by the river are tremendous. The opening scenes with cat burgling Diz deftly lifting valuables from one and all along the river, even boats anchored in the middle of it, are tense and well executed. Just the opening scenes with little to no voice acting give insight into the thieving character that promises to plumb depths … which are sadly never attained.


For a “Christian” movie, there is a high body count. Six people are killed at point blank range in the film, quite a lot for an 87 minute movie. There is also profanity, light and sparsely uttered, but it’s there.

The grandfather, Marty, sings a few verses of Will the Circle be Unbroken, but there are no church scenes, church is not mentioned, and either is prayer mentioned or seen. Jesus is only mentioned once, when Marty said “Jesus gave me a thief…” . The Gospel is not given. Once Marty said to the bad guy, “you picked the wrong side”. There are no bible verses spoken that I can remember, but instead, homilies imbued with a sense of importance as if they were verses. There are only vague references to Someone who created Diz, (Who gave you those hands? Those eyes?). The boy wants a change in his thieving life and the best the grandfather can say is that it is “gratitude that sets you free.”

No. It is not. Repentance and faith in Jesus is what sets you free.

The climactic scene in which we would expect the Gospel to be given, instead is a disappointment. All the Grandfather said was “Can you hear the angels singing?” as he looks beatifically at the ceiling.

One reviewer on IMDB said,

This movie is advertised as a Christian movie, but, other than some random Bible verses quoted a few times by one of the older gentlemen in the movie, there wasn’t much to identify it as such.

Lol, and they weren’t even Bible verses, but platitudes, delivered with solemn gravity to make them seem Bible-ish.

The initial promise of the film to be a gritty action film are never realized as the film lurches from interesting scene to interesting scene with halts and perplexing segues in between. The initial promise of the film to be a redemptive character study within the context of the Christian faith are also sadly never realized either.

This reviewer said it well: (SPOILERS!)

One of the great virtues of The River Thief is an atmosphere of deeper significance which attends one scene after another— or, what poet Robert Wrigley referred to as the “air of meaning more” in a class I took from him back in college. The “air of meaning more” is that hard-to-pin-down quality of ineffable suggestiveness which emerges from referencing the right objects, the right names, the right places, and using the right words. The “air of meaning more” is the sensation that there is something behind a closed door, even if it is never opened…. However, a few moments later, as a dead Diz speaks to us from the Resurrection of the Righteous, I had to wonder whence came the salvation of this character?

Simply using a voiceover with lyrical scenes of a stark landscape do not make the Gospel. The Gospel makes the Gospel clear. The ‘air of meaning more’ in the end lets us down and the whole movie means less than it ought.

I do not recommend it.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.