With blue-tipped hair, black nail polish and multiple piercings, Clay Watkins (Sam Huntington) is as visibly out-of-place in his small Maynard, Texas community as he feels inside. Still bitter over the loss of his father when he was a child, the angry seventeen-year-old seems to invite trouble by acting recklessly, intentionally aggravating his school peers, and ignoring his teachers. While his uncommunicative and self-destructive behavior grieves his mother (Caroline Goodall), his tough-as-leather Grandpa Buster (Barry Corbin) decides to pick up the reins and break the rank colt.
A true cowboy and acting sheriff of the county, Buster is a law unto himself. Exaggerating the consequences of an act of vandalism committed by Clay, the wise old man gives the young offender a choice: Face the judge and take his lumps, or go on a wilderness survival trip down the Pecos River -where he might just discover what he is really made of.
The grandfather is pleased when the unruly youth decides to challenge the water, until a series of unrelated events suddenly ups the ante on the already hazardous excursion. Due to a drug bust gone wrong, a couple of armed and dangerous criminals (Joe Stevens and Rudolf Martin) are on the lamb. Stealing a car and kidnapping a teenaged girl (Amanda Brooks), the pair attempts to make their escape by following the Pecos River. With the two parties on a collision course, Buster and his deputy (Charles Robinson) set out hoping to intercede before the bungled arrest and the lesson on manhood turn fatal.
River's End is the creation of Glen Stephens, a screenwriter who describes his goal in the movie's promotional materials as wanting to tell good stories about good people with "Texas values of honesty, integrity and fairness." And certainly there is no shortage of serious horse sense in this film, where Buster begins "molding Clay" into a responsible adult by having him face his fears, come to terms with his loss and find a place to constructively channel his energy.
The only problem with this tough love "family adventure" is that it may be too much medicine for some young family members to swallow. In order to convey Clay's angst, the script includes portrayals of bullying (including an incident where a snake is forcibly put down a boy's pants), roughhousing, swearing and teen smoking. When the inevitable showdown between the boy and the outlaws occurs, the violence escalates to death threats, gunshots, knife fights, and injuries inflicted by natural predators (such as a rattlesnake). This results in the death of some characters, and their bodies are shown. Another possibly disturbing scene implies a beating by depicting a bloodied baseball bat and a figure slumped on the floor.
Still, older teens and their parents, especially those who have had to deal with some of the rough realities of rebellion, may appreciate this tale of reformation. Although clearly fictional and occasionally sentimental, it does illustrate how the ebb and flow of life's currents are capable of shaping and smoothing character along the journey to River's End.