In 1986, veteran actor Dennis Hopper attacked American film like some battered pit bull gone berserk after one illegal dogfight too many. Hopper appeared in four films – “Blue Velvet,” “Hoosiers,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre II,” and “River’s Edge” – and burned holes through the celluloid every time he stepped onscreen.
In “Blue Velvet,” Hopper embodied the creepiest of creeps – rapist, druggie, and kidnapper Frank Booth – with a naked, wounded heart. Frank was no “Terminator”-style robot. He was a romantic with a rotting limbic lobe who couldn’t differentiate between love and hate. These intense swings of his emotional pendulum made Frank a natural sadist, and scared the s**t out of everybody.
“Blue Velvet” is legend. But another film from that mid-eighties batch, “River’s Edge,” gives us Hopper in another disturbing turn that’s less talked about – and equally memorable.
Director Tim Hunter abandoned earlier, family-friendly fare like “Tex” and “Sylvester” to helm one of history’s great, dark looks at the dawning age of adolescent indifference. A beefy nihilist named Samson (Daniel Roebuck) strangles his nude girlfriend, before leaving her pallid corpse on a riverbank. Rather than hide the body, Samson boasts to his friends about the murder. When they ask the beer-swigging brute why he did it, Samson nonchalantly responds, “She was talking s**t.”
“River’s Edge” focuses on what happens after this shocking loss of life. Do these “friends” of the victim immediately report the body? No. They poke at it with sticks. They walk away, curiously unmoved. They tell more friends about the corpse, showing it off like some rubber novelty.
The speed-addled ringleader of this disaffected bunch is Lane, played with manic genius by Crispin Glover. Upon spotting the body, his mouth lights up like that of a giddy jack-o-lantern. He lets out an orgasmic yelp of excitement. Wild-eyed and jabbering, arms flailing and fingers pointing, this tweaked tweaker sees the body as a romantic, outlaw opportunity to prove his friendship to Samson.
“This is like some fuckin’ movie,” Layne enthuses in a weird, “Fargo”-esque accent while jumping up and down. “Friends since second grade. Then one of us gets himself in potentially big trouble, and now we’ve gotta deal with it. We’ve got to test our loyalty against all odds. It’s kind of… exciting. I feel like Chuck Norris!”
Adding festering illness to gangrenous injury, Hunter tosses Hopper into this diseased clique as Feck, a paranoid drug dealer. On the lam for a murder of his own, Feck doesn’t get out much, resigning himself to a lonely existence with a blow-up sex doll. When Layne asks Feck to house Samson at his remote hideout, the weed-peddling recluse is happy to oblige.
But it’s clear that beyond their mutual criminal histories, these two loose cannons have little in common. Feck is a one-time motorcycle hippie (perhaps a nod to Hopper’s Harley-riding roots in “Easy Rider”) whose murder of a woman was a crime of passion. Feck claims that he loved her. In contrast, Samson’s dirty deed was clearly the result of psychopathic sadism and an unquenchable lust for control.
“Did you love her?” Feck asks of Samson’s relationship with the murder victim. “She was okay,” replies his swell new housemate.
“River’s Edge” filters its depressing subject matter through a black-comedy strainer. Screenwriter Neal Jimenez provides brilliant, funny/scary dialogue that preceded Tarantino’s more flamboyant hybrid by eight years. With a prosthetic leg in reach, Hopper reflects on the grisly road accident that took his lower appendage. “I sat there in the gutter, looking at my leg, thinking that maybe it could be re-attached. Then the ambulance comes… and runs over it!” This is sensational stuff, skating the fine line that separates insight and madness.
But there’s more to Hunter’s film than the bonding of two homicidal maniacs. Using Jimenez’s brittle wordplay and the eerie cinematography of Frederick Elmes (a staple cameraman for many of David Lynch’s films), Hunter serves up a smorgasbord of zombified youth-gone-wild. Keanu Reeves gives the best performance of his career as Matt, a slacker pothead with a loser mom and demented little brother, who nevertheless retains some sort of moral compass. Before tugging at slacker heartstrings as John Cusack’s love interest in “Say Anything,” Ione Skye played Clarissa, Matt’s equally conflicted gal pal.
Joshua Miller, twelve at the time of filming, trumps Hopper, Roebuck, and Glover as the movie’s scariest character. Miller inhabits the role of Tim, a cherub-sized terror who spends the film’s first scene dropping his younger sister’s doll from a bridge into the river. As “River’s Edge” proceeds, Miller desecrates a gravesite, steals a car and gun, and even beats up Hopper’s grizzled stoner. (A year later, he would depict another vicious tiny tot in “Near Dark,” Katherine Bigelow’s vampire road movie.). He’s a lovely lad; symbolic of the next generation of younger, more vicious antisocial youths just waiting to rape, rob, and steal their way into adulthood.
Sound downbeat? You have no idea. But Jimenez’ perceptively dry verbiage acts as a chaser for washing down this bitter, caustic pill. All the same, the filmmakers aren’t getting their jollies from downer angst. There’s nothing hip about it. Hunter and Jimenez are appalled by the casual apathy that envelops this whole mess of zoned-out space cadets. The final scene – in which the characters gaze into the open casket of a slain schoolmate – suggests that some shred of decency still exists in this world of absent parents, broken homes, and dope-infused nervous systems.
In the twenty years since “River’s Edge,” countless alienated teen films have come and gone. But none have resonated with nearly the impact. Like an overdose of tainted barbiturates, “Rivers Edge” casts a trancelike, nightmare spell. The only difference is, you’ll wake up from this one after the credits roll, free to escape its miserable, magnificently realized world of wasted youth.
KJ Doughton resurrects reels and breathes life back into films currently on life support and verging on extinction. Applying his “rave resuscitation” to movies at risk of fading into obscurity due to old age, faltering promotional systems, premature delivery, societal stigma, or a runty box-office take, he advocates a second chance for flatlining films too important to die.