I guess if you had to put this film in a genre, you'd call it Neo-Neo Realism. And with Keanu Reeves in a starring role, Neo-Neo-Neo Realism. GROAN.
When I was a kid, Channel 5 in New York City used to run this sounder right before the late night news that went thusly: "It's 10:00. Do you know where your children are?" I often wondered what kind of parents didn't know where their kids were that late at night. Well, of course, I grew up and found out that many times, it was MY parents. Don't get me wrong, I was never out doing anything more nefarious than hanging out with my friends and smoking a J or listening to music. I had friends who did much more wild stuff, like scoring heroin, or tripping their balls off, or other "bad kid" activities. This was the early '70's. At this point, I think Channel 5 had given up. If they could have run the sounder, it would have been; "It's 10:00. We know you don't know where your children are." Or, "It's 10:00. Do you know how high your children are?" "It's 10:00. Time to stop giving a fuck where your children are."
I remember very little adult supervision or presence at all in this film. In fact, the main adult presence was a certified pervert, played by the man who seemed to have cornered the market in this type of character portrayal, Dennis Hopper.
"River's Edge" seemed to be about a generation of kids that had no moral compass whatsoever. Don't forget, this was the first "Sesame Street" generation. They were reared with a doctrine of love, tolerance and understanding--only to see it ripped apart by reality. Their fall from innocence was much harder than it was for us Baby Boomers, whose childhood during the turmoils of the '60's prepared us well for life's iniquities. Coming of age in the '80's, they took to heart what American suburban society was showing them....self-interested greedy adults and their hypocrisies. No wonder they rejected the "Pretty World" image so forcibly.
But the kids in "River's Edge" did indeed care about something...each other. They cared so much, that when one of them kills another, they try to protect the killer. But what of the victim? That was the conflict presented in our movie, personified by the over-the-top Crispin Glover and the under-the-bottom Keanu Reeves. I seem to remember that this was a great antidote to all the "Brat Pack" cutesiness that we were being force-fed at the time. The film was based on a real story, and despite it's indulgences, had the feel of being a real story. The film came out three years before "Drugstore Cowboy", and, I think, was a direct antecedent to that great movie and all those other fantastic Gus Van Sant works about growing up wrong; "To Die For", "Elephant", "Paranoid Park".
"River's Edge" basically started a genre. No....that was "Rebel Without a Cause". I guess "River's Edge" resuscitated a genre.
"My leg was right out in the middle of the street. I remember lying in the gutter and bleeding and shit, staring at my leg, right next to a beer can. And I remember thinking, that's my leg... I wonder if there's any beer in that can."- Feck
A High School girl is strangled by her boyfriend John (Daniel Roebuck). When John tells members of his clique, Layne (Crispin Glover), their leader, proceeds to try and help him cover up the murder. Even though the victim was also a friend, John's friends all seem ambivalent about whether they should help him, or turn him in. They turn to a reclusive pot dealer named Feck (Dennis Hopper) to help out, yet his presence only complicates the situation. It turns out that the murderer himself is also ambivalent about his plight. When Matt (Keanu Reeves) finally alerts the authorities, his delinquent younger brother (Joshua Miller) decides to exact revenge.
Disaffection. Distopia. Disillusionment. Disgust. Disdain. Despair. But most of all, dysfunction. Absolute dysfunction.
"River's Edge" is a portrait of dysfunction, from the top down. Parents, kids, schools, country. The kids have almost no supervision, and seem to come and go with total impunity. They buy beer, listen to Death Metal, smoke weed in their homes right in front of their parents ( who are also potheads), they drive around at 12 years old.
The most troubled of all the kids is the youngest, Tim. He always wants to ride with the older kids, score some pot, and generally be as delinquent as possible. His prepubescent, androgynous visage comes in huge contrast to this personality. The film begins with some ridiculously heavy-handed symbolism.Tim throws his little sister's doll from a bridge and into the river. Right afterwards, he hears the howl of John and can see the naked corpse of Jamie right behind him on the riverbank. Leaden as this may be, the idea that the girl's human life means as much to these boys as the doll is central to the film's ethos. This is a generation devoid of emotional connection.
Screenwriter Neal Jimenez had heard about a murder in Northern California that inspired this story, and based many of the characters on his high school friends from Sacramento. The leader of this group, Layne, is a mixed up, volatile sort, who presents the arguable logic that the victim, Jamie, is dead and nothing can be done about her. But the killer is someone they need to protect. At one point he goes on an anti-communist rant, full of moral platitudes, unaware of how immoral his role is in sheltering a murderer. Other than Layne and Tim, both full of hypocritical righteousness, all the other players are ambivalent or simply detached. This puts the film at a distance from the viewer, on the one hand, but on the other provides a very nice change of pace from the typical teen fare, especially those brat-pack vehicles of the '80's.
Who is this Tim Hunter of which you speak? Is he Tab's brother? Should we worry that he shares a name with the fratricidal tween in our movie? A quick (and I mean QUICK) foray into the IMDB cave shows that he directed just a handful of features, but has been a prolific TV director on some of the best shows in the last 20 years, including Mad Men, Nip/Tuck, Dexter, and yes.....that most hallowed of hallowed: Breaking Bad!
So, does "River's Edge" resemble top-drawer TV, or a nightmare After-School Special? Actually, both. From a visual standpoint, Hunter captures the squalor of small town America, and some of the natural beauty. There are lots of shots of the naked corpse, clouded eyes and all, and some almost lustrous shots of a young and striking Ione Skye as Clarissa. Visually, the tone is right. Sadly, a director's job also entails getting the best from his actors, and that really doesn't happen here.
The film is devoid of those huge, memorable moments. There is a scene where John and Feck are back at the scene of the crime, discussing the relative merits of their respective killings. You see, Feck also killed a girlfriend, but not out of anger. (In your best Dennis Hopper, people) Because he loved her, man! They are obviously both very disturbed, and the exchange helps you understand why they are connected, and what makes them different. John begins fiddling around with Feck's gun, and worse yet, with Feck's inflatable doll girlfriend, and you think there will be this huge confrontation. It happens, but off camera. You hear the gunshot from Matt and Clarissa's vantage point, sleeping bags in the park. I think that they probably thought that would be effective when writing the script, but it really takes the most dramatic moment of the film besides the climax and deadens it.
Aye, there's the rub, lads. There's the rub. Daniel Roebuck is fine as the psychopathic John, and Hopper does his best to keep his run of nutjobs and addicts going. Other than that, the acting in this movie is atrocious. I mean really, really bad. Leonard Pinth-Garnell should introduce this baby on SNL.
Let's start with our two main characters, portrayed by Reeves and Glover. In my "Before" section I mentioned that they were respectively under-the-bottom and over-the-top. Good call, Wayne. More like River Deep Mountain High. More like Marianas Trench and Mt. Everest.
Good Lord, just a touch of subtlety on either end would have done so much good for the film. Even in his fight with Tim, Reeves' Matt stays reserved and quiet. When it's over, he says a few choice words, but it's still pretty dead. Conversely, Glover chews so much scenery they should have scored his scenes with Pac Man noises. His speech and movement affectations are almost like he was dubbed and hanging on marionette strings. There are literally cringeworthy moments. Also pretty terrible is Miller as Tim, who really is way out of his depth. His performance makes a character that is already a bit of a stretch into something so unbelievable as to be satire.
The girls are a bit less egregious. Although their reactions to the murder are a bit hard to digest, they at least have the remnants of believability. Clarissa flirting with the home room ex-Hippie teacher is unconvincing, and has no relevance to the story. Skye was never really great, but she had some memorable roles, in particular her iconic Diane in "Say Anything". She is quite beautiful, but as we have seen with Keanu, looks can only get you so far.
ON SECOND LOOK
This one has got to go down as one of my biggest letdowns of the series. I found it at times very difficult to watch, and at other times, just laughable. Like "Where's Poppa" the thing that really appealed was the freshness, the edginess of the movie. In both cases, compared to films in their genres from the last 20 years, they seem just plain stale and dull.
On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2 On Second Look: ✭✭