“River’s Edge” opens with a twelve-year-old kid tossing his little sister’s prize doll into the river. It doesn’t even remotely get any more uplifting. Based on a true story, “River’s Edge” seemed like a searing indictment of the nation’s disaffected youth at the time. Who knows what to think of it now? It’s either the silliest work of the ’80s or mortally scary — a horror movie far more terrifying than anything Alfred Hitchcock could have produced even on his worst most haunted night.
John (Daniel Roebuck) is a huge hulking question mark. He strangles his girlfriend, smokes a cigarette, buys some beer and heads to school. He doesn’t feel any remorse for his action and he doesn’t really seem to care about whether he will get caught. When he brings his disbelieving gang of friends by to see his handywork, the group’s speed freak leader Layne decides that they need to rally around their remaining friend. He dumps the body in the river, and hides John out with the local marijuana supplier Feck (Dennis Hopper). Feck is a one-legged former biker in love with Ellie, his sex doll dance partner. He hasn’t been out of his house in five years and carries around an unloaded gun for mental stability. Feck also killed his girlfriend, but in some warped bit of logic feels superior to John because he at least loved his victim.
If you can take this material seriously I suppose it’s pretty damn horrific. The twelve-year-old kid is even more psychotic than the older kids. “Look, I’m dying for a joint,” he claims. By the end of the movie he has shot crayfish in a cup with a BB gun, stolen a car, mugged Dennis Hopper, and aimed a loaded gun at his brother with serious intent to kill. All the usual bugaboos are here — beer, weed, heavy metal music, video games, and a whole lot of spooky Psycho music to set the tone. The student’s teacher is an aged sixties radical preaching to a deaf horde.
Keanu Reeves, in one of his first performances, is the most salvageable of the lot. He reports the murder to the police, then takes Ione Skye for a night of casual sex in the park. When Reeve’s mother questions his marijuana smoking in the house, he calmly assures her he didn’t steal it from her stash. When her son doesn’t come home that night, she calls it quits. “I give up this mother bullshit. It’s not worth it. You were all mistakes anyway.”
Crispin Glover gives an absurd histrionic performance that at the time garnered many rave reviews. Then he tried to kick David Letterman in the head and his career went South in a hurry. Glover’s main strategy, once he has hidden John and collected a beer for his efforts, seems to be to drive around town aimlessly in a manic frenzy. Roebuck seems to gain strength from his crime as if it were truly the only time he had ever felt alive. When television reporters try to get some reaction from the kids, they find the teens merely excited to be on TV. It would all be quite scary if the movie didn’t seem like such an overbearing melodramatic mess.
I had the same reaction to Larry Clark’s 1995 movie “Kids,” which pretty much covers the same territory, adds AIDS into the equation, and makes Glover and his crew look like Salvation Army Santas. How much credibility to give these so called accurate looks into the minds and souls of our disaffected youth is up to you. On the whole, it seems like a huge aberration, the desperate attempt of a panicked vocal group to rile up the masses at the expense of the overwhelming number of good kids doing something with their lives. After all, it’s not like kids are bringing guns to school and shooting people.