Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things:

Denez McAdoo

River’s Edge 1987Director – Tim Hunter99 min. – rated R

So what if I originally only rented this movie because I heard that Slayer was featured in the soundtrack. In fact, it barley fits the strict criteria of b-movie/ horror/ campy sci-fi/ splatter films, that I normally abide by in this column. But you know what, I enjoyed this movie so much I think it deserves some special attention. It also features several breakthrough roles of its then largely unknown actors, specifically Keanu “can’t act too well but still pulls it in at the box office” Reeves, Crispin “Marty McFly’s dad from Back to the Future” Glover, and Ione “60’s rocker Donovan’s daughter” Skye. Dennis Hopper is the only well-known actor in the film, but by this point in his career he was largely just a memory of his former Apocalypse Now days.

1987’s River’s Edge is a harrowing and deeply disturbing film about the limits of teenage apathy and isolation. The film exists in a literal teenage wasteland – youth casualties of parental neglect, sex, drugs, and lack of motivation and ambition. Keanu plays the role of Matt, unsurprisingly, a high school stoner lost in suburban America. It is difficult to understand the relationship between the friends Matt hangs out with and Matt himself. They seem to be connected only by a mutual interest in drugs and booze. They manipulate each other and are demeaning to each other. The group is lead by Crispin Glover’s character, Layne, a charmless thug who holds authority over them simply because they don’t want to challenge their self imposed loyalty. They seem largely isolated even within the context of their group.

The movie begins with what we would normally expect to come at a more climactic point in a film – the recent murder of a teenage girl. Her cold pale-blue lips and lifeless body lie in a grassy mound at the edge of a local river as her apparent killer, a hulking unassuming teenager you’d expect to see sitting in the back of your classroom, sways back and forth next to her. We are granted this scene before we have even found out a single character’s name. We have established no real connection to the killing beyond its shocking bluntness. The scene is spotted by Matt’s little brother Tim, who appears to be about 13 years old, and the murder is casually explained to him by John as they stand near the body. She didn’t provoke him, John explains, she didn’t do much of anything that lead to the murder. He simply had a violent urge to prove that he was powerful. This jaded and nonchalant exchange between two adolescents is far more disturbing than the actual murder. They do nothing about the body and simply leave it there.

Later at school, John appears to be bragging as he tells his friends how he had killed a girl they all knew. They don’t believe him, so he leads them to the river where the body still remains. Everyone is shocked at the sight, but they either don’t know how to react or are simply unaffected. The group’s sense of loyalty is stronger than their sense of morality and they refuse to tell on their friend. Instead, they simply ignore it. They return to school and go about their daily lives, but it becomes apparent that John is headed for trouble, as he shows no apparent fear of being caught. Layne makes a plan for disposing the body and then finds refuge for John from the law. One of their acquaintances, an old hermit drug dealer named Feck, played by Dennis Hopper, agrees to take up John. Feck himself is a mentally disturbed ex-biker who had repeatedly claimed that he had murdered his girlfriend twenty years ago, but out of love. Once held up with John, even Feck becomes shocked at his apparent lack of remorse.

If this film wasn’t disturbing enough, it should be said that it was also inspired by the 1981 murder of Marcy Conrad, who was killed by her boyfriend Anthony Jacques Broussard in Milpitas, California. In real life the killer similarly bragged about the murder to his friends. In the end, it’s hard to say that you “liked” a film such as this, but you will come away from it with a strong opinion about it. It’s undeniably a moving and thought provoking film and ultimately more disturbing than any shock-horror film you’ll see.