Combustible Celluloid
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With: Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Daniel Roebuck, Dennis Hopper, Joshua John Miller, Roxana Zal, Josh Richman, Phillip Brock, Tom Bower, Constance Forslund, Leo Rossi, Jim Metzler, Tammy Smith, Danyi Deats
Written by: Neal Jimenez
Directed by: Tim Hunter
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 99
Date: 05/08/1987

River's Edge (1986)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

River Blank

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Like a second cousin to Blue Velvet, which also starred Dennis Hopper, River's Edge is a dark, disturbing look at our strange reactions (and attraction) to violence. Director Tim Hunter lacks Lynch's nightmarish style, and though he simply presents his narrative as a straightforward account, it's no less powerful.

Crispin Glover stars as Layne, the self-appointed leader of a group of high school friends in a kind of suburban California wasteland, where the kids know the hiding place of their divorced mom's drug stash. Everyone wears rock t-shirts and ratty-looking clothing and they skip school at every opportunity. Layne knows where to get good pot, from the oddball Feck (Hopper), who once apparently shot a girlfriend, never leaves his home, and spends his time with a blow-up doll.

As the story begins, one of the teens, John (Daniel Roebuck), has in fact strangled his girlfriend, and she lays in a field, naked and pale as he sits blankly by her. When his friends ask about her absence, he simply tells the truth ("I killed her"). Layne takes it upon himself to protect John, putting him up at Feck's house. Layne's best pal Matt (Keanu Reeves) begins a new romance with Clarissa (Ione Skye, credited here with her real last name, Leitch) and begins to think twice about what's going on. Matt's little brother, the creepy, quasi-androgynous Tim (Joshua John Miller) -- who routinely terrorizes their younger sister -- adds another dark element to the proceedings.

What's still shocking about this movie is the utter sense of apathy around the death, as if it meant nothing, as if there were nothing more by the river's edge than a fallen log. The movie makes no judgments, nor tries to find causes. These kids have simply shut themselves down, as if any kind of input is too overwhelming for them. It's only because the Matt character has awakened himself to the idea of love with Clarissa that he is able to experience the death as well.

Of course, the movie is also remarkable for the wealth of talent involved. Reeves and Skye give two excellent early performances here, before anyone knew who they were. Miller would go on to play an equally memorable character in Near Dark. Glover was better known, and has one of his very best roles here. So does Hopper, who was in the midst of a big comeback after battling drug problems. (Besides Blue Velvet, he was also in Hoosiers, for which he received an Oscar nomination, and in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.) As for director Hunter, his movie career didn't really take off, but he has flourished in television, including working on several episodes of Twin Peaks.

River's Edge was released on Blu-ray, by Kino Lorber, in 2014. Extras include an informative commentary track by Hunter, a trailer, and optional subtitles.

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