Director: Tim Hunter
|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)
|Year of Release: 1986
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
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
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
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.
Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
| 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)