‘River’s Edge’ is Fuelled by the Intensity of Adolescence

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River’s Edge

Directed by Tim Hunter

Written by  Neal  Jimenez

USA, 1986

River’s Edge is probably best known as a bewildering showcase for some of the strangest performances of  1980s cinema.  Featuring Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper in an already puzzling film about the murder of a teenage girl and the apparent apathetic reaction of the city’s youth, River’s Edge tackles the question of society’s moral decay. Opening on a foggy California morning, this first sequence is our first look at an already cold, naked and dead teen. Lying in the grass, by the river’s edge, she becomes the symbol of the youth’s moral corruption. The boy, who strangled her, sits by her body rocking but apparently unperturbed by the crime he just committed.

It’s hard to say what aspirations Tim Hunter first had when he made the film and whether the tonal absurdity was intended as a reflection on the film’s premise, or that he could not quite contain the larger than life personalities he was working with. Moving from horror to reverence and back again, the film takes on a bit more than it can chew, as it attempts to find the source for what seems to be society’s disregard for death. In some senses, it shares similarities with the wave of youth films Francis Ford Coppola made in the early 1980s but still seems uncomfortably situated in the future. In a lot of ways, the film feels like a precursor to the apocalyptic teen movies of the 1990s, best exemplified by Greg Araki. Then again, maybe it’s because Araki’s muse James Duval, is in many ways, the independent doppelgänger of Keanu Reeves… but I digress.


Pushing the young delinquency to the very edge of despair, the film feels out of this world. This is exasperated by the styling of California, “The Golden State”, as a dark and murky wasteland. The film’s atmosphere is punctuated by the erratic and paranoid performance of Crispin Glover, who is at the edge of sanity. Driven by a desire to be loyal and save his friend, there is an immense fear lying below the surface. The question is what is he so afraid of? The threat of death doesn’t hold much sway over adolescence. Teenagers make such frustrating victims in the movies because they often believe they will live forever. This is only necessarily a case for the moral corruption of our youth and – in some ways, this is where the film falters. Its attempts to make sense of the adolescent reaction a huge statement about society just fall flat.

River’s Edge is never boring. Often bordering on hysteria, the film is fuelled by the intensity of adolescence. The film deals with a wide emotional range, and as well as it does with the angst, it also handles emotional tenderness with the same show-stopping quality. The film is only aided by the presence of a broken Dennis Hopper, who serves as one of the most peculiar moral centres a film has ever had. Though not for all audiences, River’s Edge is a strange showcase for American fear about its future, in spite of the fact it’s attempt at probing the contemporary experience is ultimately toothless.


–          Justine Smith

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