If a film like Sixteen Candles (1984) presents an idealized world populated by teenagers as they would like to be (beautiful, funny, smart), then River’s Edge (1986) presents them as they are (awkward, confused, apathetic). The 1980s were dominated by John Hughes’ entertaining and engaging teen films, which allowed an independent film like River’s Edge to sneak in under the radar. Written by Neal Jimenez and directed by Tim Hunter, the film was based loosely on the real-life rape and murder of 14-year-old Marcy Renee Conrad by 16-year-old Anthony Jacques Broussard in Milpitas, California in 1981. Broussard took a dozen of his high school friends to see the almost nude body over two days. During that time nobody called the police. Finally, two students stepped forward and went to the police. Broussard plead guilty and was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Accentuated by a soundtrack featuring the likes of thrash band Slayer and metal band Fates Warning, River’s Edge presents its high school protagonists with a difficult moral dilemma that tests their loyalties. The film gives no easy answers and presents a disturbing picture of disaffected youth. Hunter was no stranger to this kind of film, having cut his teeth on the surprisingly gritty Disney film, Tex (1982), an adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel of the same name. That film was a warm-up for River’s Edge and with the help of Jimenez’s excellent screenplay, he presented another unflinching portrait of troubled teens only this time unencumbered by Disney’s standards. The result is a powerful film that has lost none of its impact over the years and serves as a sobering reminder of just how far some teenagers will go to be loyal to a tight-knit group of friends and how their environment influences how they act and behave.
Hunter wastes no time in showing the dead body, lying naked next to the man who killed her – boyfriend Samson (Daniel Roebuck). There’s nothing salacious or sensational about it as Hunter opts for a matter-of-fact reveal. What is more disturbing is that Samson doesn’t seem particularly upset or bothered by what he’s done. He goes to a convenience store to buy beer and afterwards scores some dope from Feck (Dennis Hopper), the local, eccentric drug dealer (“Check’s in the mail!”) who lives with a blow-up doll.
At school, Samson tells his tight-knit group of high school friends flat out that he killed his girlfriend Jamie (Danyi Deats), but no one believes him until he takes Matt (Keanu Reeves) and Layne (Crispin Glover) to see the body. Layne immediately feels like it’s his responsibility to protect Samson as if this was all happening in a movie (“I feel like Chuck Norris,” Layne says wistfully at one point). Matt and the rest of the group – Clarissa (Ione Skye), Tony (Josh Richman) and Maggie (Roxana Zal) – have to decide what to do. It’s a pretty simple set up and the complexity comes in the group’s various reactions to the murder and the ramifications of their subsequent actions. Layne deludes himself into thinking it’s his job to protect Samson while the others say nothing out of loyalty, but eventually Matt and Clarissa decide to do something.
What was so startling at the time of the film’s release was the lack of reaction to Jamie’s death and how unwilling her friends are to do anything about it. Clarissa is the first to object due to her friendship with the girl. She then appeals to Matt who is sweet on her, but is also a decent guy as evident from a nice scene where he helps his little sister bury a doll that was “killed” when her brother Tim (Joshua John Miller) threw it into the river.
River’s Edge is often remembered for Crispin Glover’s scene-stealing space case Layne. At first, his style of acting seems jarringly at odds with the rest of the cast (except maybe for Dennis Hopper) and the film itself, which is quite realistic. Glover delivers most of his dialogue in an exaggerated way that, at times, borders on hysterical. This approach makes sense when you realize that to Layne the murder is the most exciting thing that’s happened to him. He sees it all as some kind of exciting adventure out of a movie – hence his stylized behavior. It’s an odd choice, but Glover makes it work through sheer force of will and provides a very dark film with moments of much-needed levity.
Keanu Reeves has the thankless role of playing the “good” kid with a conscience, but manages to give it as much depth as he could at the time with a few nice moments of compassion in the scenes between Matt and his sister, while also showing a volatile side in the scenes where Matt confronts his step-father. Matt isn’t some boy scout and he fights with his mother as well as being constantly at odds with Tim.
The film’s most disturbing character is not, surprisingly, Samson, but rather Matt’s little brother Tim who is casually amoral. He thinks nothing of drowning his sister’s doll and uses his knowledge of the dead body as a way to befriend Samson in the hopes of scoring some drugs. As the film progresses, Matt develops more of a conscience while Tim loses his (if he had any at all). Joshua John Miller turns in an astonishing performance as a disturbing Samson-in-training. For a child actor, he showed incredible ability playing a character devoid of humanity. In addition to his excellent turn in River’s Edge, Miller would go on to deliver another incredible performance as an old vampire trapped in a little boy’s body in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987).
In the 1980s, Ione Skye was the anti-Molly Ringwald – a gorgeous young model-turned actress to be sure, but her choices in films were unconventional to say the least, from the offbeat teen comedy A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988) to playing the dreamgirl in the adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel The Rachel Papers (1989). She doesn’t have too much to do in River’s Edge, but does provide the initial voice of reason among her disillusioned friends.
When he did this film, Dennis Hopper was in the early stages of what would become an impressive career revival and Feck was a fantastic addition to an already varied foster of eccentric characters. His blow-up doll-loving ex-biker comes across as a fusion of his burnt-out father in Rumble Fish (1983) and a less psychotic variation of Frank in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).
Screenwriter Neal Jimenez wrote the River’s Edge for a screenwriting class at UCLA and based it loosely on the Conrad murder and friends of his from Sacramento. Despite getting a C-minus grade, he shopped the script around and was promptly turned down by every Hollywood studio. He then sent it to producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury in 1983. They took the script and submitted it to all the studios again. Since none of them were interested, they approached several independent companies. Hemdale, responsible for making dark, dramatic subject matter, like The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) and At Close Range (1986) into films, agreed to finance River’s Edge. In 1984, director Tim Hunter received a copy of the script, but was turned off by the low budget and the subject matter.
Hunter had co-written Over the Edge (1979) and directed Tex and wasn’t interested in making another teen movie, but he was so impressed by Jimenez’s writing that he changed his mind, which may have had something to do with life during the ‘80s: “I just remember feeling that it was a very bland period. I did feel that this script had the potential to be anarchic and shake things up a little bit.”
When Crispin Glover first read the script, he was interested in playing Samson, but Hunter wanted him to play Layne. It was Glover’s then-girlfriend, actress Michelle Meyrink, who convinced him to play Layne instead. He read the script again and realized, “there was a certain sound of the dialogue that I was familiar with and had grown up hearing and knowing.” The actor didn’t do much research for the role: “I grew up in California, so I’m familiar with the world where this story takes place and I’ve known people like Layne.”
For the role of Feck, Hunter said, “Nobody would touch the part with a ten-foot pole.” Both John Lithgow and Harry Dean Stanton were originally approached to play Feck, but they turned it down. Stanton told his good friend Dennis Hopper about it, telling him, “This is too weird for me. You should do it.” Hunter felt that Hopper seemed like typecasting, and briefly dabbled with the idea of casting Timothy Carey as Feck, but felt that his rather eccentric acting methods would be counter-productive to an independent film with very little money and time. Hopper soon became the only actor interested in the role. He sold Hunter by convincing him that Feck was a romantic, which would be a nice contrast to Glover’s theatrical take on Layne.
The role of Samson had already been cast when Hunter and his casting director read a few more actors “for insurance.” Daniel Roebuck had little professional experience and was keen to avoid being stereotyped in “ridiculous sitcom ‘fat guy’ parts.” He arrived to the audition wearing a fatigue jacket, slicked hair and hold a can of beer, which he proceeded to down as he imagined Samson would. Hunter remembers, “He came in and knocked us out right away … We were hoping that the other actor would turn us down.”
The film was made in 32 days during January and February of 1986 for $1.9 million (it went on to make $3.6 million). Hunter bucked the trend of filming his teen movie in some suburban community by going to an area outside of Los Angeles called Tujunga, which was populated by river rock houses built in the 1920s. The weather during the shoot was generally either rainy or overcast, which gives the film an atmospheric quality, a heaviness that hangs over all of the characters.
Once the film was completed, Hemdale was unable to find a major distributor and so there was no reason for them to pay for prints and advertising. It was taken to several film festivals where it received a mixed reaction. Hemdale released the film in a test engagement in Seattle where it received good reviews but lousy attendance. Russell Schwartz, President of Island Pictures, saw the film at the Mill Valley Film Festival and said, “Great film. Tough to market. I consider it a challenge.” However, the distributor was so worried about Glover’s stylized performance that they asked Hunter to dub in a line of dialogue early on in the film explaining that Layne was a speed freak. The actor said at the time, “The hand gestures and whatnot—those things just made sense to me on an instinctual level.”
God bless ‘em, Island agreed to distribute it theatrically, providing all the prints and taking the advertising risks. Schwartz felt that the film would appeal to college students and young adults. He also decided to sell the film as a commercial picture and not as an art film. He said, “I decided to go for the jugular, make it controversial.” Island chose the deliberately shocking image of the dead girl lying in the grass with the caption, “The Most Controversial Film You Will See This Year.” They were helped commercially by the success of edgy films like Blue Velvet (1986). It played to full houses in New York City and Los Angeles for three weeks before expanding to 83 theaters in 30 cities.
Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Crispin Glover’s performance, calling it, “electric. He’s like a young Eric Roberts, and he carries around a constant sense of danger. Eventually, we realize the danger is born of paranoia, he is reflecting it at us with his fear.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Though its Midwestern locale and lower socioeconomic stratum give it a different setting, River's Edge shares something with Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero, a novel that is also full of directionless, drug-taking teen-age characters who are without moral moorings and left entirely to their own devices. This is as chilling to witness as it is difficult to dramatize, if only because at their centers these lives are already so empty.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington wrote, “For all its flaws and the revulsion it may induce, River's Edge has something valuable: a dark, harrowing but moral perspective.”
New York magazine’s David Denby wrote, “This brilliant, messy little picture, another triumph for the independent film movement, should cause people to argue and celebrate for years – argue over how it could have been done better, celebrate that it was done at all. In recent years, American movies have followed teenagers from school to shopping mall to make-out couch, and some of these pictures have been skillful and charming. But as far as real moral interest or complexity goes, this is the only one that matters.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “The best scenes in the film are those that move outside its range of cultural thinking – the ones in which Dennis Hopper lives. Hunter tries to turn Hopper's character, a one-legged ex-biker named Feck who supplies weed to the kids, into a symbol of '60s romantic passion to contrast with the blitzed-out children of the '80s – but Hopper won't allow it. Hopper brings too much real experience to the role for that.”
River’s Edge is a refreshingly unsentimental look at teenagers that are screwed up and come from broken homes, which only makes them feel more alienated. Hunter presents a world far-removed from the feel-good films of John Hughes. This world isn’t populated with catchy pop songs from bands like Simple Minds or the Psychedelic Furs, but rather the punishing thrash of Slayer and the punk rock band Agent Orange, reflecting the tastes of its protagonists – kids that hang outside the school and smoke – stoners and metalheads. The filmmakers don’t try to explain Samson’s actions, but they do try to dig deep and present the kind of social and economic environment that could lead to it. For all of its bleak worldview, the film does offer some hope in the form of Matt and Clarissa who are able to break out of their disaffected haze and do what they feel is right. River’s Edge doesn’t leave us with any easy answers; it just presents teenagers trying to survive the best they can.
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Gehman, Geoff. “Actor from Bethlehem Gives Film Its Edge.” The Morning Call. July 12, 1987.
Harmetz, Aljean. “River’s Edge Defies Experts’ Expectations.” The New York Times. June 6, 1987.
McKenna, Kristine. “Charting the Emotional Depths of River’s Edge.” Los Angeles Times. May 23, 1987.
Spines, Christine. “An Exclusive Q&A with Crispin Glover on River’s Edge and Questioning the Status Quo.” Sundance Institute. April 11, 2012.
Sujo, Aly. "Anatomy of a 'Blank Generation'." The Globe and Mail. May 29, 1987.
Thomas, Rob. “Hey, Watch It! Tim Hunter Returns to the River’s Edge at Union South.” 77 Square. November 19, 2012.