River’s Edge features a dead body that nobody cares about. We know whodunnit, we know why, but strangely it matters little. Tim Hunter’s film is a startling slow-burning document of teenage apathy and its destructive corrosion of basic rights and wrongs.
Apathy can be a corrosive part of human nature. Especially when applied to children and teenagers searching not just for fun, but for purpose in their lives. Take away their sense of hope and ambition in an environment where the conventional family unit might be disrupted, the American Dream nothing but a bit of make-believe, and life can degenerate into an emotionless blur delineated only by the rise and fall of the day’s sun. This caustic backdrop to 1980s and 1990s youth culture prompted a conservative American media to unleash a damning forecast for worse to come. A broken generation.
While this has proven to be fervent ground for filmmakers, those unwilling to impose reason have proven most adept at dramatising a subculture best left to the shadows. From Mark Lester’s Class of 1984 to the work of Larry Clarke, especially 2001’s Bully, these films, and the lives of those young people featured within, are a far cry from the middle class suburbia, and comparatively trivial anxieties, of John Hughes. That’s perhaps why Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge is so distinctive having been released at the height of Hughes’ eighties celebrity. Based on a true event – much like Clarke’s Bully – it tells the story of a teenage murderer who brazenly brags about his vicious deed, even inviting friends to see the body.
What makes River’s Edge so powerful is the depiction of an apathetic youth unmoved by the sight of a dead girl. Their reactions are varied but collectively dulled; the killer’s trophy nothing more than a prop interrupting their boredom. A strangely effeminate Crispin Glover as Layne has the most striking reaction. Despite having nothing to do with the murder he decides to protect the unflustered culprit John (Daniel Roebuck), first devising a plan to get rid of the body, then a scheme to hide John from authorities. Layne’s disconcerting enthusiasm is probably a surprise even to himself, as if he’s finally got a reason to get up in the morning.
It’s up to Keanu Reeves and Ione Skye as Matt and Clarissa to provide us with some semblance of rational thinking. But even they have their problems. Matt’s a product of a broken home. His father isn’t on the scene while his mother’s time is devoted to work, her boyfriend and her only daughter. That leaves him to provide the male authority figure for his tearaway younger brother Tim (Joshua John Miller) who is seemingly at his happiest when bullying his sister and sipping beer on a street corner. Matt’s penchant for smoking pot in and around him probably doesn’t help the preteen’s spiral of self-destruction. Similarly, Clarissa seems ambivalent towards her parents, her father unseen, her mother only heard in the background. She instead fantasises about one of her male teachers, perhaps implanting male maturity into an existence otherwise lacking it.
But Hunter isn’t putting the teenage group’s actions down to poor parenting. He’s not that naïve. Indeed, he provides us with a haunting image that suggests this generational monster is becoming cyclical. At one end of the spectrum is Dennis Hopper’s sociopath Feck, the kid’s drug-dealer who has an ingrained fear of the outside world and an unhealthy relationship with a sex doll. He claims to have murdered someone many years ago in similar circumstances to John perhaps suggesting the teenage murderer’s future, if not incarceration, will be self-imposed isolation. Most disturbing is the youngest protagonist in this cyclical conundrum: Tim. We’re introduced to him throwing his sister’s doll into the river; it might just be the actions of a mean older sibling but it feels like a symbolic introduction to what is to come, both in the unfolding story and his own life.
Of course, alcohol and drug taking are rampant, but they seem like a cathartic response to the pain that’s already there. Pain that’s been numbed to such a degree that rape and murder don’t register fear, regret or even sadness. It’s a shame that Hunter overcooks the film’s accompanying score, its unnecessarily melodramatic minor key melodies detracting from the natural, almost colourless visual aesthetic. But as a visceral portrait of broken youth, River’s Edge remains a potent distillation of societal fears and an unsettling document of apathy searching for stimulation.
Written by Dan Stephens
Top 10 Films reviewed River’s Edge on Blu-ray courtesy of Signal One Entertainment.
Directed by: Tim Hunter
Written by: Neal Jimenez
Starring: Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Roxana Zal, Daniel Roebuck, Joshua Miller, Dennis Hopper
If you liked River’s Edge, you might also like Spring Breakers & Bully:
Dark Male Fantasies Collide In “Spring Breakers”
“Bully” Brilliantly Obsesses About The Ugly Underbelly Of 1990s Youth Culture