Review of River’s Edge (1986)—by Philip Hohle, Ph.D. ©2015
It took a while, but I finally bit the bullet and jumped into an official paid membership with the Austin Film Society (AFS). I even went to my first screening, hosted by AFS founder Richard Linklater (the members all call him Rick). I am privileged to be in a town small enough for these close encounters, but large enough to attract and keep talent like Linklater, who is arguably at the top of the royal class of independent filmmakers these days.
Linklater is a fascinating person—he thinks very deeply about the subject material in his films. Anyone who has seen The Waking Life or the Before trilogy can appreciate the brilliance he demonstrates as he addresses difficult philosophical questions. Certainly, this was part of the appeal for the Oscar-nominated Boyhood film that is still fresh in everyone’s mind. So it was a surprise to me that the Q&A after the screening seemed oddly devoid of satisfying philosophy.
The series is called Jewels in the Rough, a revisiting of films from the 1980s that Linklater argues are worth another look. The film screened on May 20th was the Tim Hunter dark teen drama titled River’s Edge. In his rambling introduction to the film, Linklater adequately prepared the audience for the dark teen angst this film would project. Then he also spoke, as a fellow filmmaker might, about the casting choices and other non-content aspects of the movie. This film features Keanu Reeves in his first major role and the always-entertaining Crispin Glover. Linklater informed the audience that some critics thought Glover provided an “over the top” performance.
Perhaps River’s Edge is the prototype of the darker version of the teen angst genre, where a John Hughes flick would be on the opposite, lighter side of the scale. But one thing they have in common is the fact that adults are missing from the stories. This is not to say that adults are not visible, it is just that the parent’s generation can only worsen the heroes’ angst—providing no compassion, no guidance, and certainly no answers. To my disappointment at my first AFS event, we never got around to hearing Linklater philosophize on the dark angst that drives River’s Edge. In the Cinema and Religion series I curate for Concordia University at The Moviehouse & Eatery, I purposely avoid chatter about actors and auteur directors unless their performance directly shapes the content. While film history has never been my primary interest (my co-teacher Dr. Youmans is more versed in these details than I am), I mostly avoid it because those discussions take away from the time needed to unearth and analyze the socio-cultural-religious themes we find underscoring the films we watch.
With older films, I am generally unconcerned about spoilers, so let me summarize the plot: a clique of teens discovers that one of their own has murdered his girlfriend, also a member of the gang. She is left lying completely naked on the banks of a wide river outside of town. The teens react to the problem of the dead body in different ways. Lanye (Glover) wants to dispose of the body to protect the cohesion of the group. The girls of the group are muted in their response to their dead friend—perhaps the most shocking moment in the film. One rationalizes, “He (John) had his reasons [to kill Jamie].” One of the girls (Clarrisa) is puzzled over the realization that she cried more over the death of a character in a movie than over her friend. Later, death is discussed as something akin to the sensation of being stoned. I expected the attitudes expressed in these comments to be disruptive to some degree for the younger people in the audience—but it was never brought up in the discussion afterward. Granted, this taboo may be an implicit norm of the AFS organization. In any case, I have my own series that can provide this kind of analysis, so I should not impose that norm on my new friends. Nevertheless, I was disappointed that we left so much food on the table.
In a day where sexual assault is considered intolerable, we find in this film characters who are numb to the problem of the violent rape-death of a friend. And therein we find the unappreciated genius of the film, the conundrum the viewer must wrestle with: are there circumstances that eliminate the possibility of a functioning ethic—an absolute right and wrong that can provide answers? The girls try to phone the police, but they discover they do not know what to say. The conundrum silences them, since John (the one who strangled Jamie) is still their friend. For now, they need the safety of their gang, and that seems to be a sufficient mechanism to cope with the surprise of seeing their friend starkly naked and restlessly dead. Of course, the drugs and alcohol help. I saw the conundrum an insightful metaphor for the study of mass media effects on today’s audiences who invite all kinds of transgressive characters into their living rooms.
In my research, we’ve discovered that viewers can and often do select their own protagonist. In light of that truth, I propose that Matt (Reeves) was the protagonist of this story. He is the transitional character I most identified with, as he immediately senses the moral problem his friend John has created and is less and less willing to go along with the cover-up. At the same time, he provides the only hint of parenting in his dysfunctional family. While he can still bum pot from his mother, he serving as somewhat a father figure to his innocent little sister and reluctant disciplinarian to his troubled pre-teen brother. Completely the opposite of his friend John, Matt treats Clarissa with complete respect.
Also a transitional character, others might select the mysterious drug supplier Feck as the protagonist (played by the iconic Dennis Hopper). From the lawless and dangerous Frank Booth (Blue Velvet) persona in the beginning, Feck becomes a man apparently willing to submit himself the law for the punishment of his own crimes. When we meet him, he is a pathetic shell of a man hiding from the murder of his girlfriend in the past, bragging about the fact to the impressed teens who he keeps supplied in drugs. Feck chooses to remain in his dysfunction, repelling the society that would burden him with their laws. While the film begins with Feck as the gang’s model for living free, he transitions to the place where he realizes that justice should be served. Slowly distancing himself from the Booth persona, Feck realizes that he has moral limits. In spite of his past crime and his eccentric and creepy behavior throughout the film, by the end he mortifies himself in a confession to the law (who remain off-screen) in the hope that the cycle of guilt will be broken—not only for himself, but for the teen gang, and for the benefit of the whole community.
The most pathetic character is John Sampson, a hulking teenager without restraint or remorse. He murders Jamie because she “talked shit.” In the flashback to the actual murder, she is seen fully clothed as she dies, but of course, in the crime scene we see later she lies completely naked—a subtle, but egregious story detail not forgrounded in the Q&A after the screening.
John tells Feck that the murder was exhilarating, a moment of “total control.” This anthem of the male rape-culture under attack in today’s headlines goes almost unnoticed and unpunished, except by Feck who becomes lucid to the growing need to distance himself from this young thug. Feck tries to explain that John’s senseless murder of Jamie was different than his own transgression: “I loved her!” It is interesting to see the filmmaker propose that the viewer judge Feck more favorably in their rationalizations for murder, but even Feck slowly becomes aware that John and he are too much alike—both of them are tragically guilty of an unforgivable sin against the community and the sin is lawlessness. But the filmmaker Hunter twists this revelation— we are shown the flashback of Jamie’s murder when John speaks of being in total control, but Hunter intercuts the scene with a concurrent action: Clarrisa’s seduction of the relatively innocent Matt. Almost as stunned as Jamie, Matt becomes passive as Clarrisa takes charge of the sex—she is on top and in control. The editing provides a most strange juxtaposition, especially in light of contemporary conversations about violence and sex. What is even stranger is the fact that these scenes at the heart of the film’s message did not provoke commentary after the screening.
No doubt, River’s Edge raises important issues, especially for the millennial generation who are the inheritors of the 1980s baggage. The IMDB site for the film points out that the plot is enhanced by the gang’s relative ambiguity to the death and crime so close to them. Indeed, death has lost its sting—the wide-eyed corpse lying in the dirt does not seem real to the pot-hazed kids in the film, and even the awakening of a moral conscious is subtle and demands no justice or emotional response to death’s offense. As the film ends, Matt and Clarissa have found some new strength in their relationship; but at the funeral after they visit the casket of their dead friend—now fully clothed—they return to the pew without any sign of grief. Death has lost its sting for these teens, and the film tries to leave one with a sense of hope that everything will be OK for them.
As observers of this 1980s angst, this mostly millennial screening audience seemed quite willing to pass on the film’s profound statements about life and death. Somewhat like Jamie’s teenage friends—stoners who cannot negotiate the reality of death—this audience seemed too numb to appreciate the tragedy of this film. Linklater predicted this accurately in his introduction to River’s Edge—today’s audiences are able to laugh at and appreciate this film without feeling its pain.