A gripping study of teen ambivalence with an utter lack of angst, River’s Edge is a creepy, powerful and under-seen picture featuring clever yet believable dialogue and virtuoso performances. It is an obvious precursor to Twin Peaks in both theme and atmosphere.
Taking place in a small, nameless, northern Californian town, it follows a group of teenage characters over several days, after one of their friends admits to murdering his girlfriend.
The murderer is Samson (Daniel Roebuck), a tall lug of a teen who isn’t panicked or remorseful. Rather, he is detached and ambivalent.
When he tells his friends about it, he doesn’t brag. Calmly answering the question “where’s Jamie?” he responds matter-of-factly “I killed her”.
There is nothing new about the depiction of violence in movies, nor the presentation of violent youth. But River’s Edge deals with the ripple effects of violence and explores how those around the perpetrator are not equipped to process a response.
There is no strong reaction and the collective moral compass is way off-kilter. It’s not just that children can kill children, but that other children do nothing and feel nothing in the wake of the killing.
There is no tension or ambiguity surrounding the actual murder, and neither is the murderer himself the most interesting or central character. That honour falls to Layne (Crispin Glover), a wild-eyed speed-freak who decides the 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.
At first, Glover seems to be giving a bad performance until you realise that it is, in fact, Layne who is a bad actor in his self-appointed role of group saviour. He is fanatical and determined even though he has no idea what to do, and believes that helping his friend entitles him to beer.
When he gets his beer he then laments that his help “should at least have rated a Michelob”. He then whines – more upset than at the killing itself – that “it’s warm even!”
The group’s conscience is Matt (a not-yet-famous Keanu Reeves), a sullen teen who is immediately disgusted by the murder and Layne’s desire to cover it up. Matt is the only teen whose family is portrayed substantially. It explains his apparently contradictory nature.
Although he is just as much of an alienated juvenile delinquent as Layne and the others, Matt genuinely appears to have some sense of ethical obligation. He cares for his little sister and even though he clashes with his mother, a single nurse with a live-in boyfriend, it doesn’t stop him from caring for her as well.
Dennis Hopper does his signature Dennis-Hopper-eccentric-character-thing as an ex-biker named Feck – a paranoid recluse who clutches at a plastic sex doll. As the dope supplier to the teens, Feck is their only possible adult confidant. Unfortunately, he is of little help, claiming to have once loved a woman so much he was forced to kill her.
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, Matt’s 12-year-old brother, Tim (Joshua John Miller) is actively monstrous.
His amorality seems more sinister because he is starting so young. He’s aggressive, violent and cruel to the point that even Matt is repulsed by him.
Tim skulks along the edges of the narrative, reminding us that no child is too young to embody the worst.
Even in post-Columbine America, where it has become a tragic regularity to hear of children and teenagers committing acts of violence, this study of youthful alienation in the Reagan era still disturbs.
The screenplay is loosely based on an actual event that took place in Milpitas, California in 1981 when Marcy Conrad was killed by her boyfriend, Anthony Jacques Broussard.
Ione Skye Leitch
Joshua John Miller
Samson ‘John’ Tollet