River’s Edge

(Tim Hunter, USA, 1986)


At the beginning of River’s Edge, the trajectories of two characters are interwoven and intertwined. We begin with Tim (Joshua John Miller) “killing” a doll (named Missy) by letting it fall from his position on a bridge into the rapidly streaming water below. Tim hears a wild, yelping sound; crossing to the other side of the bridge, he observes John aka Samson (Daniel Roebuck) sitting on grassy riverbank. In the distance of the long shot, we may not realise, at first, what we (with Tim) are seeing – until the camera moves in and snakes around to reveal the dead, naked body of Jamie (Danyi Deats) behind John. Tim gets on his bicycle – we will often see him this way, on the move and rapidly crossing the expanse of this small town – and the film makes a transition to a new location: a mini-mart store that also houses a modest video arcade.


As Tim plays one of these video games – these are the ‘80s years before such leisure-pursuits became domestic and thus “privatised” – John enters the shop, deep in the background of the frame. Tim notices this (he is not only the most mobile figure in the film, but also the most keenly observant). The scene focuses on John’s trouble at the counter with the guy on duty – trouble that will be reprised later in another key scene of tangled trajectory-intersection. We see Tim stealing a few beers (which John is finding difficult to buy) and confidently exit the shop with these items hidden in his jacket. But we do not see what happens next; even as it unfolds as counterpoint to the main, foreground action in a continuous take, it is obscured by being covered – and we have not been primed to notice it. We discover this incidental business when John does: Tim has placed the beers on the front seat of his car. It’s Tim’s way of forging a friendship – underlined by his laconic tag of “Don’t mention it”. But the friendship is decidedly unreciprocal, seeing John does not, indeed, mention it; he just motions for Tim to get in the car with him, initiating a rapport in which only certain acts (like smoking weed), a certain use of space and time, is shared. Most of the relationships in River’s Edge unfold like that.


Gestures and actions unseen, and somewhat mysterious, even if folded into the frame or the linear movements of a classically unfolding plot: River’s Edge is full of them. The killing of Jamie has taken place right before the film starts. The ultimate murder by Feck (Dennis Hopper) of John is heard (it wakes Keanu Reeves as Matt) but not seen or shown. The (single?) mother of Clarissa (Ione Skye Leitch) is an off-screen voice, like Rupert Pupkin’s Mom in The King of Comedy  (1982). Layne (Crispin Glover), like Tim always on the move, is never associated with any sign of either home or family. The absolute central act of the narrative – Matt’s call to the police about John, something that is witnessed by Tim – is entirely erased, although we can surmise (on re-viewing) that we do see him considering and preparing himself to perform it. And why, after all, did John kill Jamie? The explanation alters as it circulates from mouth to mouth: she was “talking shit”, maybe about John’s Mom (he has mother “issues”, we are told – an ‘80s pop-psychology buzzword); but later as John declares to Feck how “powerful” and “real” the act felt, he says that Jamie was simply stoned – and we don’t hear her do or say anything at all. Still more disquieting, an ellipse across the film takes us from this flashback glimpse, when Jamie is fully dressed, to her naked corpse with a neat pile of clothes beside it – a grim spin on the various “rape jokes” passed between the teens as dating and hooking-up talk.


There are films that one revisits – in this case, for me, over three decades later – to verify, or not, the emotion they first prompted inside oneself. River’s Edge (as the saying goes) “stands up” to this test of time, and it does so precisely because of the cloud-curtain of diverse mysteries, great and small, at its core. The brilliant musical score by Jürgen Knieper (Wim Wenders’ composer from the early ‘70s to Wings of Desire [1987]) crystallises and condenses both the film’s mood and its material structure: an arrangement in three layers, it begins, over the opening credits, with just the churning chords of acoustic guitar and bass – and then abruptly shuts off, giving away to the sound of the river. Then, for most of the movie, it plays deconstructed variations on this bottom layer, along with four long-held string notes placed on top – the middle, filling-out layer. Only over the very final credits do we hear the top layer – the Miles Davis-style melody on a synthesised trumpet – in its fullness. This withholding of the entire piece for so long creates a constant feeling of suspension and irresolution.


River’s Edge – which begins with a near-abstract representation of water resembling TV or video grain – is not only about what is seen and unseen; it also deals with what can be spoken and interpreted, well or badly. In this, it is surely a sign of the “postmodern” ‘80s culture; although the film presents a veritable sociological checklist of social ills (broken homes, media distractions, addictions to stimulants, working-class precarity, “welfare cases”, not to mention the omnipresent nihilism of Heavy Metal music – “Those who live do not care!”), all the facile read-offs that one could make of anomic alienation, the matter with kids today, the waning of affect, the blurring of fantasy and reality, and so forth, are both raised and adroitly mocked within its borders, acknowledged and immediately dispensed with or contradicted by the characters.


In a key interrogation scene, a cop tries out every conventional template for comprehension on Matt – “Were you bored? Excited? Was it a big joke?” – and gets back only an oh-so-sincere “I don’t know” or “Do you want me to make something up?” These kids are aliens even to themselves; as Matt says to Clarissa, “I mean, it affected me. Didn’t it affect you?” Friendship – especially in the mind and demented behaviour of Layne – is wielded as a sacred Code of Honour, but (as an exasperated Matt finally points out to him), it’s just an “idea in his head” that he doesn’t much believe in anyhow – just as he’s never been particularly close to John. Free-floating emotional investment without a specific or coherent system of values or beliefs: another sure sign of the postmodern ‘80s. Was it Jean-François Lyotard who said, in that decade, that we have too many things to believe in, and not enough belief to go around? In River’s Edge, emotions are easily (and uneasily) displaced: grief and puzzlement can get rechanneled into libido, and Matt can viciously bash his little brother not only for the evident or ostensible reason, but because it’s the only outlet for the troubling, nagging question hanging over John’s inaugural act: “Why?”


The youngest kids (Tim and his nunchucking pal Moko [Yuzo Nishihara]) recycle phrases about their “fucked-up childhoods” and Matt duly calls them, like in a 1950s social problem drama, juvenile “delinquents”; a member of the central teen gang ironises about what a “disgrace to society” they all are; a gladhanding, grade-grubbing nerd named Kevin (Richard Richcreek) sermonises, in the classroom, about the “fundamental moral breakdown” of the times; Feck and John each wonder whether the other is a “psycho”; and even speed-freak Layne (while driving) goes into an alt-right sermon well before its 21st century moment, about a prevalent loss of values and loyalty. Worst and most disconcerting of all, the idealistic history/social studies teacher Burkewaite (Jim Metzler) who stands for the radical spirit of the ‘60s (and is, as such, a crush-object for Clarissa) ends up advocating violent vigilante-ism – after he’s confessed that, like everyone else in the school, he really couldn’t care less about a dead girl. But, by the same token, John is shown being sweet and kind to his senile “Aunto”.


River’s Edge reveals itself – perhaps more clearly now than in 1986, with its topical shock-realism impact dimmed – to be a tightly patterned film. The screenplay more or less follows the outline of the original 1981 Californian case involving the murder of Marcy Renee Conrad by Anthony Broussard, still in jail today. Artist-teacher J.J. Murphy, a particularly astute commentator on script structure, observes that it “weaves the interlocking stories of three different murderers – Tim, John and Feck – which span different generations”, and that should be clear even from my brief account of its opening minutes. In the way the story unfolds, John is the murderer in the present, Feck the murderer from the past … and Tim the potential killer of the future. All three, literally, get a gun in their hands, while no other central character does. All three are bound, within this circle, into several pairings of deluded, unreciprocal friendships: as Rick Thompson (teacher of director Tim Hunter in an early ‘70s class that also included David Lynch, Paul Schrader and Terrence Malick [!], and later collaborator with him on a notable Clint Eastwood interview) has observed, “Hunter pivots the film on the striking duet scenes between John and Feck, a development of souls struggling unsuccessfully to assemble an incomplete do-it-yourself spiritual universe kit” (Cinema Papers, September 1987, p. 53).


As this semantic network expands to include further characters, there is a strict classical unity of time married to a proximity of space, and an emphasis on the mobility of the characters around the town (Sunland-Tujunga is the principal location for the main strip, while the river is patched in from Sacramento). As the story builds, it creates a near-catastrophic sense of dread from this interlocking mechanism – even though suspense per se hangs only on what Tim may or may not do once he has possession of Feck’s gun. It’s not a whodunit, and that’s why the mysteries have to be generated at another level – in the undertones and ellipses.


Insofar as the film has any kind of conventional ethical resolution or reassurance – and the widespread suspicion that this was precisely absent led to so many moralistic denunciations of it at the time, such as from Australian filmmaker John Duigan in a pompous interview – it hangs on some tenuous, ambiguous, frazzled factors: Clarissa almost ringing the cops; the move by most of the teen group away from Layne’s bullying emotional manipulation; the tentative reconciliation of brothers Matt and Tim; Clarissa’s stunned moment of instant disenchantment before the ranting Burkewaite. And there’s the funeral in the final scene, with its ultimate view of Jamie’s prettified corpse on church display (something Clarissa thinks to be “in bad taste”!), but it precisely does not deliver the catharsis of mourning (the socially “appropriate” response) that Matt and Clarissa hope for themselves, as much as for anyone else. 


Young Keanu Reeves is an intriguing figure amidst this murk: he possesses some innate goodness and innocence, but his internal ambivalence is marked (as Murphy notes) by the peace sign sprayed atop the skull on the back of his jacket. His short path to anything even vaguely resembling redemption or transformation arrives in the form of a grassy tryst with Clarissa during the night of Feck’s murder of John; as Murphy again notes, it pushes him more to the side of peace (Eros) than skull (Thanatos), but our last view of them holding hands at the funeral is hardly a love-saves-all clincher. Two years later, Marisa Silver’s Permanent Record, also shot (like this film and Lynch’s Blue Velvet [1986]) by Frederick Elmes, would cast Reeves in a more determinedly upbeat version of a dark teen-culture tale (focused on the aftermath of a suicide).


Hunter avows that the script by Neal Jimenez (first generated as an exercise in writing class) was perfect as he got it, and he scarcely changed a word (its verbal eccentricities – like the splendid insult “Food eater!” yelled by Matt at his replacement-Dad – would seem to bear this out). But Hunter – who came from various angry or melancholic teen movies (Tex [1982], Sylvester [1985], co-writer of Over the Edge [1979]), and went mainly into crest-line telemovie and series work (including Mad Men, Hannibal, Breaking Bad, the ‘90s seasons of Twin Peaks, even the pilot of Beverly Hills, 90210) – surely sharpened its classicism, especially at every transition point from scene to scene. We are consistently asked to compare incidents and characters, to weigh up the different positions, actions and reactions within the overall structure of interwoven paths.


Hunter favours wide-angle dramatisations of, for instance, scenes of family fights (the film’s very few POV effects – such as Clarissa glancing over at a photo of Jamie – are rendered in a jolting, non-subjective way); and he likes to economically, wordlessly condense certain events, like Matt’s mother picking him up at the police station, reflected in a distant surveillance mirror. Thompson describes Hunter’s stylistic approach in these terms (pairing it, as so many commentators of the time did, with Blue Velvet):


Hunter’s style is not obsessive, like Blue Velvet; River’s Edge has some lyric, Chabrol passages, but most of the film, like Chabrol, like Lang, is cool and distanced. Characters and events are not presented to be likeable, but to be thought about. It has its surrealism, but a fundamental surrealism not compounded of illogical images but built around l’amour fou.


That “crazy love” referenced by Thompson is presumably a reference to Feck, who often testifies to the fact that he killed his partner – another fleeting mystery: is that a photo of her we see in Moko’s hands? – because of love, not rage or drugged-out delirium. Although I tend to see this aspect of the film as a sombre reference to the demented 1960s legacy of William Burroughs, it is fascinating to note how some commentators indeed identify – or at least sympathise – more with Feck than any other character in view; Murphy, for example, finds him to be, in fact, the “only sympathetic adult character”, who “provides the moral centre to the film”. And Feck’s act of killing John does somewhat serve to restore some kind of moral balance to this insane world depicted ­– a judgement wielded by the one who killed for love over the one who killed for the cold affect of power and control! – although let us note the structural irony of Feck’s final line, “I lost a good friend today”, rhyming with his disquieting and surely deluded declarations of friendship, in his first scene, for Layne, Ellie (his sex doll) and his trusty, unloaded gun.


River’s Edge is full of names that went on to bigger if not always better things – from cinematographer Elmes (‘70s/’80s collaborator of Lynch, later and still today of Jim Jarmusch) to actors including Roebuck (Dudes, 1987), Skye (Say Anything …, 1989) and Glover, who concentrated more on his own filmmaking projects and other creative endeavours. Joshua John Miller acted throughout the ‘80s (including in Kathryn Biglow’s Near Dark, 1987), but also became a writer and producer of films (The Final Girls, 2015) and TV series (Queen of the South, 2016– ). In fact, he was a second-day, instant replacement for Corey Haim, who would have played Tim as a 15 or 16 year-old. Miller’s performance has a special aura, wholly unremarked on within the film itself, and all the more suggestive for that: an intense air of mystery accumulates around the fact that he is so clearly queer (as Miller is in life). How many queer 12 year-olds do you see in cinema, at any time, from any country? Moreover, River’s Edge concentrates its greatest intensity in the perverse micro-intrigue that crosses human passions with inhuman, inanimate objects (a major, systematic pattern in the film): Tim is jealous of all the attention that Matt pays to Missy the doll, and returns (again, off-screen) to deface her grave: as sad little Kim (Tammy Smith) rightly cries, “He’s still killing her”. All this is condensed in a rare frontal track-in to Tim looking on at the makeshift funeral for Missy – a counterpart to the disquieting “zolly” shot of Clarissa backing away from the sight of Jamie’s corpse by the river. These emotional mysteries form subterranean swirls and eddies …


Hunter got a career out of River’s Edge, if not exactly the one he dreamed of having; Jimenez, by contrast – after a run of produced scripts in the ‘80s and ‘90s for Errol Morris, Mark Rydell and Christopher Cain – co-directed with Michael Steinberg a single film, The Waterdance (1992), a largely autobiographical piece about his life as a paraplegic, a fact that gives a special and strange poignancy to Feck’s seasoned monologue about his lost leg. But Jimenez has no official credits on IMDb after the bizarre Hideaway  (1995); it is intriguing to imagine how The Sweet Hereafter, a project to which he was at one point attached as adapter-director, would have played in relation to his recurring themes of trauma, guilt and responsibility, rather than Atom Egoyan’s somewhat more academic rendering of the same material. Intriguingly, Jimenez has seldom re-appeared to reminisce about the latter-day cult of River’s Edge in the various subsequent DVD/Blu-ray editions and anniversary-commemoration articles (such as Vice’s useful “oral history” online).


River’s Edge is fascinating also for its almost miraculous ensemble performance effect – using actors at wildly different levels of experience, proficiency, naturalness (or not) and sensibility, which could have easily spun out into a heterogeneous mess: Hopper, Glover, Reeves, Skye, Miller, Roebuck, Roxana Zal (another fixture of ‘80s teen movies). It would seem, from the production accounts, that Hopper took the lead in patiently workshopping the predominantly young cast. It is a film of strikingly rich and strange gestures: Glover putting his fingers to his temple or lying down to seemingly commune with the rocks by the river (the final glimpse we get of him) ­– a gesture, however it was arrived at, that reminds us of the potent mythic centrality of the river in American culture, as the place of both death and rebirth; or Hopper idly boring his fingers into his cheek as he stumbles on the revealing line (also his final scene), “At least I loved her”.

This text is written up from some of the notes for a lecture delivered by Cristina Álvarez López and myself at the Zomerfilmcollege in Antwerp, Belgium, on 11 July 2019.

© Adrian Martin July 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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