River’s Edge

rivers edge

When River’s Edge opened in America (35 years ago on May 8), reviewers and columnists chased it around like cartoon reporters waving their mics at a murder suspect. They probed it for social meaning, decided it was a commentary on the affectless kids of baby boomers (meaning, the kids of the columnists). For those of us of the generation in question, the movie was “John Hughes Goes to Hell.” It took the ethos of The Breakfast Club — “When you grow up, your heart dies”— and ramped it up. The kids in River’s Edge were born with dead or broken hearts. Generation X nodded in recognition, then probably moved on to Beverly Hills Cop II later that May as a palate-cleanser. To a greater or lesser extent, we looked at the kids in River’s Edge and said “Yeah. We know kids like this. Sometimes we are kids like this. This isn’t a social commentary, this is a snapshot.” The boomers really didn’t want to hear that.

The shock of River’s Edge isn’t that it shows kids who either kill or respond to death numbly; it’s that it shows those things in an American movie. Screenwriter Neal Jimenez and director Tim Hunter are commenting, if anything, on what we usually expect young American protagonists to do, how we demand they respond. The situation here, which Jimenez based loosely on a 1981 murder case, is that one of the film’s teenagers, Samson (Daniel Roebuck), has strangled his girlfriend, for no explicable reason — meaning, with no clear motive. “Motive,” in this movie’s terms, is a fake thing that other movies do. What Coleridge called Iago’s “motiveless malignity” holds sway here. As for the other kids, for a long while nobody is sure what to do, how to respond — except for one — and the body lies out in the open, uncovered, unmoved. 

The conflict arises not from the authorities trying to prove Samson did it — for he admits to the murder to practically anyone who will listen — but from the ethical struggle between two of the other boys in this group, Matt (Keanu Reeves) and Layne (Crispin Glover), over what should be done about Samson. Layne proposes that they all close ranks around Samson, hide him, whatever. His reasoning appears to boil down to “She’s dead — we can’t help her. He’s alive; we can help him.” Matt isn’t so sure; like the others, he has a flicker of conscience and consciousness, which can either be extinguished or fanned into flame. We’re not too surprised when Matt goes to the cops fairly early on. Even 35 years ago, Keanu Reeves projected a basic kindness. But even Matt doesn’t act quickly enough for the police’s liking. Most of the adults in this movie are essentially ghosts of movies past, insisting on the clearcut morality and narrative rigidity that are irrelevant in the gray and tangled world of River’s Edge. 

The film has a hell of a lot under its hood, and not all of it was intentionally placed there, but some of it clearly was — the whole doll motif, for instance, linking a dead girl to hollow objects of male desire or destruction. I guess Matt’s new girlfriend Clarissa (Ione Skye) is supposed to be the living, breathing exception to all that, but she’s a little blank. (Someone like Allison Anders could step forward to tell Clarissa’s story.) We learn nothing about Jamie, the girl Samson killed. She’s literally just a naked body to be argued over. We never hear her speak, only briefly see her alive in a flashback, moments before she’s killed. 

My hunch is that Hunter and Jimenez are getting at something more elemental and distressing than just “these kids today” or “adults suck.” The passage of 35 years has made River’s Edge feel more timelessly tragic. Other than a few bits of score that briefly make the movie sound like a banal ‘80s thriller, it has aged very, very well. Its lineage proceeds from skid-row cinema to the JD flicks of the ’50s to Herzog’s Stroszek to Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue — Hopper is rather famously in River’s Edge, by the way, as a one-legged freako and possible killer who isn’t even the craziest galoot Hopper played in 1986. Hopper’s presence links this movie to his earlier portrait of bottom-dog life in numbed-out America. A double feature of Out of the Blue and River’s Edge is contraindicated unless under strict supervision.

I should probably deal with Crispin Glover here. Throughout River’s Edge, Layne is meant to be the “leader” who decides for everyone else what’s going to be done and tries to enforce it. Glover’s relentlessly externalized and stylized performance says that he thinks Layne is a cartoon, so he plays him without any human shadings except fear and the will to power. He’s basically the Joker to Reeves’ wounded stoner Batman. I could entertain arguments pro or con Glover’s performance, but ultimately it just doesn’t seem organic to the piece. What happens to Layne doesn’t matter to us, and maybe it’s right that it shouldn’t matter. And maybe Glover, to his credit, sensed that, and made Layne a cartoon devil to indicate that the character isn’t human on the same level as Matt and the others with still-alive morality. The effect, though, is to leave the movie lopsided. (Pauline Kael, in her negative review, put it succinctly: Glover is “giving an expressionist performance in a movie that’s trying to be ‘real.'”) You can tell that Matt and the others capitulate to Layne because it’s in the script, not because he’s persuasive or intimidating.

Samson sits next to his victim, a teenage Frankenstein not knowing why that flower petal didn’t float. We gather that murder made him feel alive, for a while, but then the adrenaline wore off and he resurfaced to a reality where everyone around him was dealing with the consequences of his action, so he didn’t have to. Layne is cut from the same cloth as those who want to protect rapists, because why ruin this young man’s future? Matt, who is almost comically courteous to Clarissa even post-coitus, is of a quieter but stronger fabric. Layne will speak for the soul-dead living; Matt will let the dead speak for herself. Like Out of the Blue, River’s Edge is depressive but piercing — it stings and leaves a bruise.

Explore posts in the same categories: art-house, drama

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