River's Edge

Director: Tim Hunter
Screenplay:Neal Jimenez
Stars: Crispin Glover (Layne), Keanu Reeves (Matt), Ione Skye Leitch (Clarissa), DanielRoebuck (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 childrenand teenagers committing acts of the most violent sort, River's Edge, Tim Hunter's1986 study of youthful alienation in the Reagan era, still holds the power to unsettle anddisturb. Although strung together as a taut, sometimes suspenseful narrative laced with blackhumor, River's Edge is first and foremost a character study.

Taking place in a small, nameless northern California town, it follows a group of teenagecharacters over several days after they find out one of their friends has murdered hisgirlfriend--strangled her to death early one morning and left her gray, naked body on theshore of a nearby river. The murderer is Samson (Daniel Roebuck), a tall, lug of a teen whodoesn't seem to respond to what he has done. He isn't panicked or remorseful; rather, he justdoesn't seem care that he has killed someone, and he doesn't seem to care much what happensto him. When he tells his friends about it, it isn't so much bragging as it is simply informingthem of what happened to him that morning. "Where's Jamie?" someone asks him. "I killerher," 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. Summoningevery ounce of twisted logic he can muster and invoking characters from his steady diet oftelevision and movies ranging from Chuck Norris to Starsky and Hutch, he arguesthat it is the group's duty to protect Samson and cover up the murder. It at first seems thatCrispin Glover is giving a bad performance until you realize that it is, in fact, Layne who isgiving the bad performance in trying to play the role of group leader and savior. He becomesfanatical in his determination to meet this challenge even though he has no clear idea of whatto 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 bythe murder and Layne's urgent desire to cover it up. Matt is the only teen whose family wesee 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, Matthas a good nature buried deep inside. He seems to genuinely care for his little sister, and eventhough he shows disrespect to his mother, a single nurse whose live-in boyfriend isconstantly 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 themajority of the teen characters in River's Edge are asocial and lost, cut off fromfeelings of responsibility and respect for authority and drifting along the banal currents ofdrug abuse and petty criminality, Tim is actively monstrous. Perhaps it is his pre-teen age thatmakes 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 skulksalong the edges of the narrative, reminding us that no child is too young to embody the worstin humanity.

The screenplay was written by Neal Jimenez, who based it loosely on an actual event that tookplace in Milpitas, California, in 1981. Jimenez does a good job of endowing his stonercharacters with multifaceted personalities, which keeps them from degrading intoone-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 ownpersonal well-being is strangely off-set by his devotion to the elderly aunt with whom helives. Matt's girlfriend, Clarissa (Ione Skye Leitch), appears to come from a steadymiddle-class family, yet she is drawn to the criminal element in the school. Layne is the mostcomplex 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 demandsloyalty 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 thatsacrifice 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 keepsthe story focused on the characters and the decisions they face, while also putting theiractions in a larger context. Unfortunately, some of the contextual moments, while notably inconception, 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 isobviously an ex-hippie reaching middle age. He doesn't seem to teach a particular subject, butrather 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 inadvancing a social and political agenda that its proponents saw as righteous, and thecontemporary rebellion in the film, which is aimless and alienated, advancing no agenda otherthan narcissism and nihilism. The scenes don't work because they're too obviously didactic inbuilding a monument to lost '60s idealism. The high school teacher doesn't ring true as acharacter, and the things he says in the classroom are too blatant and awkward to be taken asreal dialogue.

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

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

River's EdgeDVD

AudioDolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Supplements Originaltheatrical trailer
DistributorMetroGoldwyn Mayer

The new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer ofRiver's Edge is adequate, but not much else. The overall look of the film is overcastand grayish, with a low-intensity color scheme that doesn't lend itself to a particularly vividimage. 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 brightgreen 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 maintainany stable black levels. Part of this is likely due to the film stock that was used, as the entirefilm 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 minimalamount of sound effects.

The only included supplement is a terrible original theatricaltrailer presented in full-frame. The awkwardness of the trailer suggests that the marketingdepartment 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 theFuture's Crispin Glover--as if that's really going to draw crowds).

©2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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