Overlooked & Underseen: River’s Edge (1986)
“I poked at it with a stick”
Over the weekend, there was a hashtag going around Twitter in honor of Keanu Reeve’s birthday (#7FavKeanuMovies). I’ll tell you right now, I don’t have seven favorite films from him, I only have one: River’s Edge. When I posted my tweet about having only one favorite movie, a few eyebrows were raised. “What about _____?”, read some of the response tweets. I don’t care for Reeves' work. I just don’t. Sure, the John Wick films are fun but, I mean, he’s not really acting in those, is he? For me, and let me repeat this for people in the back, for me his best role is in River’s Edge.
The film tells the story of Samson “John” Tollet, who for no good reason, decides to strangle his girlfriend, Jamie, one night out near the bank of the river. A young teen, Tim (Joshua Miller), happens to see John and the body from a bridge nearby while he’s throwing his younger sister’s doll into the river. Although Tim is only 12, he does whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Tim has an older brother, Matt (Reeves), who is friends with John. The three siblings have a pretty bad home life. Their wearied mom has a live-in boyfriend and has absolutely no control over her children.
While at school the next morning, John tells his friends that he killed Jaime. They don’t believe him because he tells them this with zero emotion. He offers to show them the body. John, along with Matt, Layne (Crispin Glover), Clarissa (Ione Skye), and three other friends all take a trek out to see the body. After seeing that John really did murder their friend, Layne tells everyone they all must keep quiet. He doesn’t want anyone to know John killed Jaime. He wants to actually bury the body but no one will help them so they all just leave.
Both Clarissa and Matt, on their own, struggle with whether they should call the police, after all, Jaime was their friend and shouldn’t John pay for murdering her? Layne feels strongly that John shouldn’t be punished for what he had done. After all, Jaime was apparently talking shit about John’s mom, so she was asking for it. Layne does everything in his power to try to keep John from being arrested. Layne wants John to stay at Feck’s (Dennis Hopper) house until he can figure out what to do. Feck is the guy they get their weed from (for free) who lives with his sex doll, Ellie. Feck has apparently killed the love of his life 20 years previously and has been hiding out from the cops ever since. Things eventually come to a head when John and Feck decide to leave the house and go on their own little adventure and everyone ends up back at the scene of the crime.
River’s Edge is bleak as fuck. The kids have nothing to do and nowhere to go. They’re bored. They are numb to everything around them. At one point, Matt and Clarissa have a conversation about not being affected by their friend’s murder. Matt says that maybe they’ll feel it at Jaime’s funeral. They are all supposed to be friends but what kind of friends have to pause and think about whether they should turn in the killer of someone they are supposed to care about? These kids have no purpose and are just adrift. If that isn’t a recipe for something bad to happen, I don’t know what would be.
The acting in this movie is top-notch all the way across the board. Reeves is really great here. Yes, seriously. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done. Reeve’s Matt is anything but one note; he manages to show the layers to Matt. Crispin Glover is also wonderful as Layne. I think this is one of Glover’s best performances, too. It might seem weird that I love Glover and not Reeves since they are both rather unconventional actors. Glover just has a charm that Reeves doesn’t. Also, River’s Edge was part of Dennis Hopper’s renaissance (along with Blue Velvet and Hoosiers) and it shows why he deserves to be considered among the best.
The film looks as bleak as its subject matter. It stark, muted, and cold. The music throughout is provided mostly by Slayer, a thrash metal band that seems exactly like what these kids would be listening to as they drive around town doing nothing. Director Tim Hunter made a fantastic movie here; he’s a prolific television director who’s worked on things like Twin Peaks, Mad Men, and Hannibal. I’ve often wondered why he hasn’t made a lot of features throughout his career. His work here and in television proves he is worthy.
This movie deserves to be seen by more people. The movie almost feels more relevant now than it did back in the late '80s. So, if you’re looking for some Keanu, Glover, Hopper goodness, pop this one on. River’s Edge is available on Blu-ray and it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.