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Entries in River's Edge [1986] (1)

Monday
May072012

River's Edge (1986)

Please, Don't Say Anything

Strap in, gang! You're about to witness a "first" here at Kicking the Seat. I have a strict(ish) policy when it comes to reviewing movies: I must write about a film no later than three days after seeing it. Typically, two days is pushing it, but three is my absolute max.

Because I watch so many movies every week,* the details and impact of a given film erode quickly if I don't get them out of my system. Especially problematic are the times when two or three or four pictures get backed up on the ol' mental freeway with no time in sight for banging out my thoughts. But today I'm going to review a movie I saw more than a week ago, Tim Hunter's River's Edge.

Since I was a kid, I've heard lots of high praise for this film. While it may have been daring and controversial in 1986, much of it is just plain silly today. Which is a shame, because there are some terrific performances here and startlingly prescient ideas about disconnected youth culture. But aside from the novelty of watching a fifteen-year-old Ione Skye tame a smoldering, rebellious Keanu Reeves and a more-off-the-rails-than-usual Crispin Glover attempt to out-weird Dennis Hopper, there's not a whole lot to recommend.

Let me step that back a bit. The movie has one really big thing going for it, which almost gets drowned out by the small-town melodrama: Dan Roebuck blew me away as Samson Tollet, a hulking teenager who sets the plot in motion by choking his girlfriend to death. As he alternates between unsettlingly cool apathy and boiling psychopathy, I thought of James Dean screaming his soul out in Rebel Without a Cause--a gross display symptomatic of a rage that Tollet keeps under control via serious drugs. Roebuck is mesmerizing, and in the scenes he shares with the showy Hopper, it looked to me like Hopper was freaked out by performing next to the real deal.

The movie opens with Tollet sitting atop a cliff in the woods, next to the naked corpse of Jamie (Danyi Deats). She'd made some disparaging remark about his mother and therefore had to go. Young Tim (Joshua John Miller) sees the couple from a distance and immediately bikes back to the depressing tract home he shares with his dysfunctional family. Tim's older brother Matt (Reeves) meets up with Tollet and the rest of their stoner gang at school, and the murderer convinces them to visit the scene of the crime.

Tollet conducts two field trips in as many days to visit Jamie's corpse, which lies exposed on the rocks overlooking a river. Everyone is freaked out by the sight of her lifeless eyes, purple tone, and the ants that have begun to call the body home. But no one goes to the police. Eventually, Matt makes an anonymous phone call, and his friends begin a paranoid quest to finger the rat.

The kids' leader is Layne (Glover), a tweaking lunatic who walks like he's constantly auditioning for West Side Story and talks with an exaggerated California accent that drove me up a wall ("No way man" came out as "Nyyoooo wey, myaaaaaauhhhnnn!"). Layne makes Tollet hide out at the ramshackle estate of local recluse Feck (Hopper), a weird, old addict who has lived in fear for decades, believing the cops are on his tail for allegedly killing a girl. It becomes quite clear that the menacing Feck is all show and no pony when tasked with babysitting a giant teen murderer; his affectation of dancing in front of the window with a blow-up doll is scary at first, but a pathetic cry for help by movie's end.

There's not a lot to the small narrative threads that comprise River's Edge. I could see this being revolutionary storytelling in the mid-80s, but now that multi-layered, boundaries-blurring drama can be found nightly on television, Neal Jimenez's screenplay feels quaint. There's a millisecond of tension in the climactic showdown between Tim and Matt (Tim blames Matt for tearing apart the gang he'd always longed to join), but the film neatly ties everything together. Though its characters and situations are messy, they nonetheless conform to the self-correcting-universe optimism that characterizes a lot of 1980s cinema.

I might have overlooked the film's simplicity and remembered it more fondly had it not been for two gaudy factors that completely wrecked my experience. The first is Glover, an eccentric performer who should have been reined in by Hunter from moment one. His interpretation of the mush-brained suburban wastrel flies in the face of what every other performer is doing. He's doesn't just pop in from another movie, he beams in from another universe on a mission to wreck the seriousness of every scene he infects. Perhaps Hunter meant this to balance Reeves' grumpy-wallpaper performance, but Glover's so far to the left here that he's practically to the right.

The second culprit in the River's Edge fiasco is the music of composer Jurgen Knieper. Now, I don't make a habit of calling for people's heads, but in this case, I'll gleefully make an exception. This film's score is so distracting, so cheesy and bad, that I was tempted to watch River's Edge as a silent film. Maybe Knieper was pitched the project as a moody, dark thriller and interpreted that to mean "1950s horror movie".

Take, for instance, nine out of the ten scenes that take place outside Feck's house. Most of these are transitional, and feature characters walking up to his door and either hanging out on the porch or being let inside. Knieper uses the same theme to announce each such moment, an ominous dread cue that plays as if the characters tripped some kind of perimeter alarm outside the old man's house on Halloween. Shameful.

River's Edge reaffirmed a very valuable lesson about nostalgia. I'm willing to bet that the people who recommended this movie to me over the years had spent quite a bit of time away from it. I've also got some distance on it now, and can only hold on to Reeves' crazy jean jacket, and the Glover/Knieper problem. The message, then, I guess, is this: before you go advising people to check out the amazing movies from your youth (hell, from two years ago), make sure the films really hold up. If fnothing else, it's a great way to avoid embarrassment.

*This was the case before I launched the podcast, anyway.