“Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all – the apathy of human beings.” – Helen Keller
A camera pans across the lifeless body of a young woman, stripped naked, lying in the grass beside the river, and rests on a hauntingly vacant look in her eyes. It’s a chilling, unsettling, and frightening image returned to frequently throughout Tim Hunter’s film partially inspired by real events that occurred in California in 1981. Most disturbing, however, are the reactions of those who stand by, friends of the guy who murdered her and brought them out to the river to showcase the graphic results of his actions. Their silence at the sight is deafening, and they all walk away, leaving her cold corpse as it was before, unwilling to report the crime but content to move forward with their lives. Only one lingers behind, not to turn in his friend, but to help cover up his crime. Faced with such horrors, how can one respond with such indifference, with no sadness, empathy, or even repulsion or terror? How is that in real life a murder a young man bragged about, going as far as showing the dead body to at least thirteen individuals, went unreported for two days? RIVER’S EDGE paints a dark and twisted picture of these circumstances and a small town oblivious to its own self-destruction, making for a strange, disquieting, and riveting portrait.
Taking place over the roughly twenty-four hour period following the death of Jamie (Danyi Deats) at the hands of Samson (Daniel Roebuck), or “John” to his friends, it quickly transforms into an examination of the environment that has instilled and grown the apathy within the individuals at the film’s core through its own unresponsiveness to the troubles they face. A frequent director of coming-of-age stories, Hunter eventually helmed three episodes of David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS in the early 90s, which comes as no surprise. When viewing the two side by side, it’s relatively easy to draw the parallels. Both place more interest in the communities they take place in rather than the crimes that have been committed, and each shines a different light on the nature of adolescence and young adulthood in small town America. Also of note, Lynch’s BLUE VELVET screened only two days after RIVER’S EDGE at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1986, sharing both Dennis Hopper and cinematographer Fredrick Elmes. Still, to describe Hunter’s film as “Lynchian” is likely a disservice, as it’s engaging and provocative in its own realm, complete with dashes of dark humor sprinkled throughout and some noteworthy performances.
Featuring a cast that might resemble a warped version of THE BREAKFAST CLUB, it’s nowhere near the realm of John Hughes. The characters of Neal Jimenez’s screenplay do not win over your hearts so much as upset you, yet you cannot look away from the metaphorical slow-motion car wreck they seem moving towards. They’re fascinating to say the least, thanks to a handful of up and coming talent who would eventually break out to larger vehicles. Obviously, the one whose career has become notable is a 22-year old Keanu Reeves, here in one of his first screen roles displaying his unrefined, “shaky”, and typically unconvincing performance style. Yet here, it feels less out of place, more grounded, perhaps in thanks to those opposite him. In his youth, he feels just as at home here as he does kicking ass and taking names in some of his more contemporary work. There’s also the debut performance of 16-year old Ione Skye, the actress who would go on to star in SAY ANYTHING… just a few years later, as Clarissa, a girl in the group who is uncomfortable with Jamie’s death but afraid to do anything, and more preoccupied with her attraction to radical teacher Mr. Burkewaite. Roebuck is engrossing as the hulking and taciturn Samson, a guy as perplexed and confused by his own actions as everyone else. Hopper is understandably great as Feck, a drug dealer to the kids who has lost a leg, lives with a blow up doll, and brags of killing a woman himself once. He’s a bizarre individual, but Hopper finds the unexpected vulnerability within him in ways beautiful and strange. But the true shining beacon and bafflingly astounding portrayal comes from 22-year old Crispin Glover as Layne, a rebellious teenager who seems to be on a perpetual high, perhaps as a means of combatting some kind of crippling paranoia. Though he starts off as the clown, Layne is ultimately the one who seems to actually register some sense of weight to what’s transpired, even if his actions are often reprehensible. Glover is positively enthralling, frequently hysterical, and occasionally moving in a bonkers bravura tour de force that exists on a plane all to itself.
Winner of 1986’s Best Picture award at the Independent Spirit Awards, it definitely carries many signs of its indie creation, but it bears them all with pride. The bare bones approach gives the proceedings a sense of earthiness that glaringly highlights the frightening reality of it all. Rough and dusty exteriors compliment the equally decrepit and run-down interiors, indicative of a disregarded and unsympathetic world in which these teenagers have grown up. The costume designs are delightfully unique and specific, each use of leather, denim, or jewelry so fitting to their character’s personality. Even the length of the thumbnail on Jamie’s cold hand is indicative of the life she led. Fredrick Elmes’ camerawork has very little flashiness save for a few instances, as committed to the simple, grounded aesthetic as every other aspect. Jimenez’s script may feel a bit sporadic at times, and as characters split in different directions, some pairings are far more intriguing than others, and it’s occasionally confusing what direction the narrative is taking, but everything comes to a fairly brutal and tense conclusion. And its all patched together, compiled, and edited with a certain energy that’s clearly a product of its time but is nevertheless gripping.
Shocking and surprising in countless ways, imperfect but always transfixing, RIVER’S EDGE ultimately feels like a cry for help, a plea to no longer turn a blind eye to the afflictions that plague our country’s youth. If the work of John Hughes in the 80s was an attempt to have teenagers understood, Hunter’s film is a wake up call that they should not be ignored. Only two parents are depicted, one who is a mother more concerned with her son possibly stealing her drugs, and another chases the kids off by going after them with a shotgun. They have influenced their children to steal, cheat, hurt, and abuse through their own actions, and haven’t the sense to notice the destructive behavior and utter hopelessness they’ve imparted on them. “Nobody cares!” cries out the frustrated Mr. Burkewaite towards the film’s conclusion, and it packs a considerable punch because everyone has yet to expound this particular truth. The world has given up on these young people and so, in turn, they’ve given up on it, choosing to combat their despondent existence with whatever kind of escape or satisfaction they can find, even if taking someone’s life is what makes them feel most alive. So they turn their back on murder because they’ve been conditioned to, because it’s just another part of the downcast life they lead, and that’s perhaps the most disturbing answer of all.
(Unexpected Oddities is a series dedicated to films that are not featured on any particular list, my own watchlist, or were perhaps even beyond my own knowledge, and that I happened to view by chance and circumstance)