River’s Edge (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
John (Daniel Roebuck), an unambitious high school student, has recently killed his girlfriend for no reason. He does not feel bad about it. In fact, he decides to go to school the next day to brag about the murder to his friends. Matt (Keanu Reeves) feels sick to his stomach after seeing the corpse. He considers calling the police. Layne (Crispin Glover), on the other hand, is determined to find John a hiding place as he tries to figure out how to get the police off his trail.
Written by Neal Jimenez and directed by Tim Hunter, “River’s Edge” is a careful examination, without evaluation, of youth’s apathy. Experiencing the story is like observing an aggressive disease as we follow the teenagers, including some adults, make one terrible and heartbreaking decision after another. We question their humanity as well as what we think we might have done had we been the ones walking in their shoes.
Take Maggie (Roxana Zal) and Clarissa (Ione Skye) as they attempt to call the cops to inform them about their friend’s naked corpse by the riverside. Their good intentions drive them to walk to a pay phone, but neither wants the responsibility of talking to the police. One of them claims she does not know the number while the other claims she does not know what to say to the authorities. Neither ends up making the call. How difficult is it to give an anonymous tip? All they had to do was dial 9-1-1, say what they saw, provide a location, and hang up. These can be accomplished in under ten seconds.
There are several subplots that encircle the murder and most function as distractions. Oddly enough, they work because none of the teenagers wants to face the grim reality of a life that existed the day before. Someone they talked to, laughed with, teased, shared secrets with. They would rather hang out at the arcade, get high, and entertain gossip around school.
But there is one subplot that generates high tension. Tim (Joshua John Miller), Matt’s twelve-year-old brother, is extremely angry for being hit by his brother. He goes on a mission to find Feck (Dennis Hopper), a man with a bad leg whose sole companionship is a blow-up doll, because he has a gun. Tim wishes to shoot Matt as retribution for having been hit. The brothers come from a dysfunctional home. Their mother is prone to histrionics; she wants to control her children but isn’t willing to put the energy to parent effectively. Meanwhile, their stepfather has the bravado to suggest to his wife that beatings will set the children straight.
Although nearly everyone is a mess, the material makes no judgment through repercussions. It is up to us to try to make sense of the decisions. As the picture unfolds, we realize the sadness of everyone’s situation even though we may not agree with their actions. Perhaps they just don’t know any better. Sometimes that’s the way life is, the way people are–flawed, afraid, looking out for their self-interests over others’.
The writing and direction’s partnership is crucial. If had been weaker than the other, the characters and the circumstances that plague them would likely have been less thought-provoking. Or worse, the material could have been a hammy Lifetime movie. The fact is, the places and people shown here do exist. It is a reminder that one does not need to live in an urban area to observe insidious moral decay.