Judge Charles Coleman Sr. (Diggs) sends his grown son off to his first day at the police academy, never expecting anything out of the ordinary. Hours later, he’s summoned to the morgue to identify his son, comforting his police officer wife and trying to make sense of a traffic stop that ended with his son shot to death. The audience knows the truth already: Officers Von (Hemsworth) and Rory (Gianni Capaldi) wrongly identified Coleman’s son as drawing a weapon and opened fire, and then planted evidence to frame the situation as drug-related and violent.
This is Wes Miller’s River Runs Red. It’s a thriller, yes, but it’s also asking big questions about justice, about truth, and about prejudice in today’s America.
Coleman’s pursuit of the truth (and justice) leads him to conversations with the mayor and the chief of police, both of whom seem apologetic but still point to the evidence in his son’s guilt. As Coleman’s frustration grows, compounded by his deep sadness and his wife’s grief, he seeks out justice in the best way he knows how. He discovers that other parents have lost children to the same two police officers, and that the system failed to prosecute the officers in a meaningful way. While Coleman is now a crucial cog in the justice system, his past reminds him of options outside of the legal process – he could wreak revenge on the two police officers and no one would ever know.
Coleman forms an uneasy alliance with Javier (Lopez), a Hispanic gang boss who still rages over the way the system refused justice for his son. Coleman’s former colleague on the police department, Horace (Cusack), tries to persuade Coleman that justice will be processed in its own way. Coleman’s wife lays blame on him for being part of the process and failing to provide a justifiable answer for their son’s loss. The audience sees all of these threads begin to knot together to form the answer in the judge’s mind: he will kill the two police officers responsible.
Now, while the film portrays some faith-based options for Coleman’s pain, the style and tone of the film follow a Death Wish-style outcome for Coleman’s path. We see the film develop as a stylish thriller under Miller’s direction, but there is a sense that pursuing vengeance can’t end well, that the cost for revenge is still great. As Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” For Coleman, the pain and anguish over his loss, and over the absence of justice, pushes him closer and closer to digging his own grave.
River Runs Red is a thriller – and a powerful one at that. But the story is entwined with questions about what it means to discriminate against someone based on our expectations rather than our experience of them, about police brutality and community pain, and about what people do with the choices pressed upon them. Entertaining and well acted, the film will lead you wrestling with your position in society, of privilege and of opportunity, and challenge you to use it to change the future.