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River's Edge
Director: Tim Hunter
Screenplay: Neal Jimenez
Stars: Crispin Glover (Layne), Keanu Reeves (Matt), Ione Skye Leitch (Clarissa), Daniel Roebuck (Samson), Dennis Hopper (Feck), Joshua John Miller (Tim), Roxana Zal (Maggie), Josh Richman (Tony), Phil Brock (Mike)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 1986
Country: USA
River's Edge Poster

Even in post-Columbine America, when it has become a tragic regularity to hear of children and teenagers committing acts of the most violent sort, River's Edge, Tim Hunter's 1986 study of youthful alienation in the Reagan era, still holds the power to unsettle and disturb. Although strung together as a taut, sometimes suspenseful narrative laced with black humor, River's Edge is first and foremost a character study.

Taking place in a small, nameless northern California town, it follows a group of teenage characters over several days after they find out one of their friends has murdered his girlfriend--strangled her to death early one morning and left her gray, naked body on the shore of a nearby river. The murderer is Samson (Daniel Roebuck), a tall, lug of a teen who doesn't seem to respond to what he has done. He isn't panicked or remorseful; rather, he just doesn't seem care that he has killed someone, and he doesn't seem to care much what happens to him. When he tells his friends about it, it isn't so much bragging as it is simply informing them of what happened to him that morning. "Where's Jamie?" someone asks him. "I killer her," he responds matter-of-factly.

The unofficial leader of the group of teens is Layne (Crispin Glover), a wild-eyed, speed-freak who determines that this murder is a test of the group's loyalty. Summoning every ounce of twisted logic he can muster and invoking characters from his steady diet of television and movies ranging from Chuck Norris to Starsky and Hutch, he argues that it is the group's duty to protect Samson and cover up the murder. It at first seems that Crispin Glover is giving a bad performance until you realize that it is, in fact, Layne who is giving the bad performance in trying to play the role of group leader and savior. He becomes fanatical in his determination to meet this challenge even though he has no clear idea of what to do, and the moral implications never seem to occur to him.

The group's conscience is Matt (Keanu Reeves), a sullen teen who is immediately put off by the murder and Layne's urgent desire to cover it up. Matt is the only teen whose family we see in any substantial manner, which helps to explain his seemingly contradictory nature. Although he is just as much of an alienated juvenile delinquent as Layne and the others, Matt has a good nature buried deep inside. He seems to genuinely care for his little sister, and even though he shows disrespect to his mother, a single nurse whose live-in boyfriend is constantly at odds with him, Matt still seems to care for her, as well.

Matt's 12-year-old brother, Tim (Joshua John Miller), is another story altogether. While the majority of the teen characters in River's Edge are asocial and lost, cut off from feelings of responsibility and respect for authority and drifting along the banal currents of drug abuse and petty criminality, Tim is actively monstrous. Perhaps it is his pre-teen age that makes his amorality seem all the more sinister, but Tim is a truly frightening creation. Aggressive, violent, and cruel to the point that even Matt finds him repulsive, Tim skulks along the edges of the narrative, reminding us that no child is too young to embody the worst in humanity.

The screenplay was written by Neal Jimenez, who based it loosely on an actual event that took place in Milpitas, California, in 1981. Jimenez does a good job of endowing his stoner characters with multifaceted personalities, which keeps them from degrading into one-dimensional punks. Each teen is alienated in one form or another, but each is unique.

Samson's complete lack of empathy for human life and seeming disregard for his own personal well-being is strangely off-set by his devotion to the elderly aunt with whom he lives. Matt's girlfriend, Clarissa (Ione Skye Leitch), appears to come from a steady middle-class family, yet she is drawn to the criminal element in the school. Layne is the most complex character because he functions in his own dimension. You could label him amoral, but that is too easy because he lives his life according his own moral code that demands loyalty to his friends. Despite his odious behavior when it comes to dealing with the murder, Layne is still a dedicated character who gives a great deal of himself, however misguided that sacrifice is.

Director Tim Hunter, who had worked with troubled teen characters in his film of S.E. Hinton's Tex (1983), steadily paces the narrative in River's Edge and keeps the story focused on the characters and the decisions they face, while also putting their actions in a larger context. Unfortunately, some of the contextual moments, while notably in conception, turn out to be among the weakest in the film.

For instance, there are several scenes in a high school classroom with a teacher who is obviously an ex-hippie reaching middle age. He doesn't seem to teach a particular subject, but rather talks obsessively about the late 1960s and what it meant to be a social rebel. Of course, the obvious point here is to contrast the rebellion of the late 1960s, which had a purpose in advancing a social and political agenda that its proponents saw as righteous, and the contemporary rebellion in the film, which is aimless and alienated, advancing no agenda other than narcissism and nihilism. The scenes don't work because they're too obviously didactic in building a monument to lost '60s idealism. The high school teacher doesn't ring true as a character, and the things he says in the classroom are too blatant and awkward to be taken as real dialogue.

Scenes involving Feck, an ex-biker played by Dennis Hopper, are much more effective. Feck is an eccentric character--a paranoid recluse who clutches at a plastic sex doll and claims insistently that he once killed a woman because he loved her. Feck is the dope supplier for the local teens, but he winds up becoming involved in Samson's plight when Layne asks Feck to hide him for a while.

The scenes between Feck and Samson are among the best in the film, as Samson reveals himself not to be the monotonous lug as he first appeared to be, but rather a troubled, angry young man who felt more alive when killing someone than he ever had felt in his life. That even Feck, who himself proclaims to be a murderer, cannot understand how someone can be so removed from the flow of human life speaks volumes about just how lost Samson and the other characters are.

River's Edge DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SubtitlesFrench, Spanish
Supplements Original theatrical trailer
DistributorMetro Goldwyn Mayer

The new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer of River's Edge is adequate, but not much else. The overall look of the film is overcast and grayish, with a low-intensity color scheme that doesn't lend itself to a particularly vivid image. Contrast and color saturation throughout the film looks good, if intentionally faded, especially in the unnerving contrast between the gray and purplish corpse and the bright green grass on which it is lying. Darkness in the image is consistently troublesome, however, as film grain becomes very evident in the night scenes and the transfer is unable to maintain any stable black levels. Part of this is likely due to the film stock that was used, as the entire film has a somewhat rough feel.

The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack works very well. Clean and clear, it does its job in realistically presenting character dialogue and a minimal amount of sound effects.

The only included supplement is a terrible original theatrical trailer presented in full-frame. The awkwardness of the trailer suggests that the marketing department had no idea what they had on their hands and couldn't figure out how to sell it (the trailer veers from disturbing imagery to to the proclamation that it stars Back to the Future's Crispin Glover--as if that's really going to draw crowds).

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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