Thursday, May 3, 2012
River's Edge Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month
A 14-year-old girl was strangled by a 16-year old boy, possibly after he raped her. He left her nude body in a wooded area and then bragged to other students at school and even went so far as to drive them in his truck to have a look at the body. Word spread around school about the presence of a body in the hills outside town and other students went to see for themselves. For two days this went on without anyone reporting it to the police. Screenwriter Neal Jimenez took this very real news story out of Milpitas, CA, and turned it into a screenplay. The resulting film, directed by Tim Hunter, was an atmospheric and lunatic study of disaffected youth before that even became a 1990s moniker attached to a particular type of songwriting and filmmaking.
When River’s Edge begins, the crime has already been committed. John (Daniel Roebuck) sits in apparent shock next to his dead naked girlfriend alongside a river in a town in the Pacific Northwest, a setting that provides constant grey clouds and light rainfall lingering over the gloom that douses the entire film. The serenity of the setting with lush green grass and a gently flowing river underneath a light fog in the damp morning air underscores the sinister deeds that have taken place. The friends he brings into his little secret are Layne (Crispin Glover), a borderline psychotic who values protecting John at all costs; his girlfriend Clarissa (Ione Skye); Matt (Keanu Reeves), a stoner from a tragically unhappy broken home; Maggie (Roxana Zal); and Tony (Josh Richman). Are they even really friends in the way most people understand the term? They’re more like acquaintances who share an affinity for doing nothing and getting drunk or high most nights. Maybe they hang around with John because of his connection to the marijuana dealing Feck, the crazy recluse played by Dennis Hopper, who built a career around playing off-the-wall types like Feck.
Dysfunction in River’s Edge is a top-down problem. It starts with the adults who, when present in their children’s lives, are absent in the practice of actually raising them. Tony’s father sits in the living room with a rifle and opens fire on late-night visitors. Clarissa’s parents don’t blink an eye when she comes and goes at 2:00am on a school night. Matt is the oldest sibling in his family. He has a 12-year old brother , Tim (Joshua John Miller), and an even younger sister. Their mother is too busy with a live-in boyfriend and her own recreational drug use to care much about what her eldest gets up to. Tim is a troubled boy whose own proclivities toward drug use along with a disconnect from life, responsibility and consequences causes him to very nearly commit an act of finality that would destroy his and his family’s lives permanently.
There is no moral compass in anyone’s lives in River’s Edge, which is part of the point. Feck almost becomes one, but he is too far gone in his middle aged ramblings for anyone to take him seriously. He claims to have once murdered a young girl long ago and he remains in hiding, having gotten away with the crime. He and John are similar characters a generation apart. If John gets away with his own crime, we could imagine him become a kind of Feck in some other town twenty years on. Jimenez attempts to use a school teacher as an example of someone who could serve as a role model to push young people in the right direction, but the dialogue embodies all the worst aspects of movie classroom scenes. Hunter’s direction of these scenes doesn’t help the situation. There are the students who just don’t give a damn uttering predictably inane things and there’s a total caricature of a nerd right down to his thick-rimmed glasses, pocket protector and nasally voice lamenting the “breakdown of moral fabric in our society.” The teacher points out the failings even of that student, chastising him for offering stock platitudes without making any real difference in anyone’s lives. It’s an embarrassingly bad scene that either should have been cut from the film or completely re-written. As it stands it does the film no good.
While I’m on board with believing the phenomenon of a group of people failing to report a murder, I was not as convinced by the actors’ performances which hardly registered any emotion at all even at the sight of their dead friend lying naked on the wet grass. The way they sort of stoically regard the body and the situation with barely even a look of shock is a way of pushing the affectation of being disconnected a little too hard. I wonder if this was a stylistic directing choice because I don’t imagine every one of the actors independently made the same choice for their performances. Crispin Glover is the real standout. His manic and wild ravings inject the film with an energy that is lacking elsewhere on the screen. When Layne is off screen the film falls into lulled serenity with lots of quiet discussion about Layne, about John, and about the crime. Of course that’s the idea. Everyone else is rarely moved to action. Layne, as crazy as he seems to us and his friends, at least has a plan of action which is to help John get out of town. His approach is pragmatic: the girl is dead and they can’t bring her back, but they can help John. His moral compass exists, it’s just backwards compared to most people’s.
Apart from the ridiculous classroom scene, there is no sermonizing. There’s no big speech given by any of the characters to help the others see the error of their ways. The teens are written and acted with surprising sensitivity by someone who obviously understands how lost a lot of high school students feel. It’s a high school movie that’s written for the most intelligent and discerning of teenagers, unafraid to avoid demographic pandering.