A high school slacker kills his girlfriend and shows off her dead body to his friends. However, the friends' reaction is almost as ambiguous and perplexing as the crime itself.
Released in 1987, ‘River’s Edge’ is an unsettling and unforgettable movie about a real-life teen murder, and it still carries quite an emotional impact nearly thirty years after its release. The film was made for under $2,000,000 and shot in 30 days by director Tim Hunter, but was greeted with considerable critical acclaim and very modest box office success. Unlike the John Hughes-influenced teen films at that time, ‘River’s Edge’ portrays teen life as one of somber confusion and apathy, as opposed to the sanctimonious angst and self-pity typically seen in 'The Breakfast Club' and 'Pretty in Pink.' I first saw the film back in late eighties on VHS, and my appreciation has only grown after reviewing it on Blu-ray.
Daniel Roebuck (perhaps best known for his exceptional Jay Leno in the HBO film ‘The Late Shift’) plays John, a disheveled, sullen high schooler who chokes his girlfriend Jaime to death and leaves her nude body on the shore of a river. He tells his friends (Matt played by Keanu Reeves, Clarissa played by Ione Skye, and Layne played by Crispin Glover) about the murder rather matter-of-factly, and they gaze upon the body with a morbid curiosity. Instead of going to the authorities or doing anything else which might be reasonable in the face of an obvious murder scene, the kids merely become dazed and dumbfounded.
‘River’s Edge’ is an uncompromising examination into grisly and disturbing circumstances, yet avoids the gore and superficiality which might otherwise have reduced this movie to a perverted freak show. Director Hunter and screenwriter Neal Jiminez convey the same realistic grittiness of a Larry Clark film (especially ‘Bully,” which is also based around the real-life murder of a high school kid), but without the gratuitous sex and sleaze. What’s most fascinating and disturbing about ‘River’s Edge’ is that characters are portrayed with depth and sensitivity, even though they could be rightfully dismissed as irresponsible losers.
The cast is impressive all around, including Keanu Reeves whose popularity would soar several years later in films about runaway buses (reuniting him with co-star Dennis Hopper) and simulated realities. In several scenes, an otherwise aimless Matt is shown constantly protecting his little sister from a malicious kid brother (played with haunting gusto by Joshua Miller) and neglectful mother. Conflicts between Matt and other family members also illustrate his frustrations with a highly dysfunctional household, particularly when he clashes with his mother’s loafing, live-in boyfriend and calls him a “food-eater!” among other, more colorful names. (This scene has to be watched to be appreciated.)
The always enigmatic Crispin Glover seems plays a more paranoid version of his old TV persona (his memorable first appearance on 'Late Night With David Letterman' comes to mind). After recognizing his successful turn in 'Back to the Future,' it’s unnerving to see the meek and bumbling George McFly turn into an obsessive, pontificating and completely delusional weirdo. His character Layne is a misguided youth who is determined protect the John (Roebuck), even though the murderer himself literally snorts at Layne’s feeble defense and openly admits “he doesn’t even know me!” Glover’s “rebel without a cause” performance does go over the top, but his character remains believable no matter how repellant.
Ione Skye also impresses with her nuanced portrayal of Clarissa, a character who could have simply been stereotyped as the female airhead but her disorientation rings true. A scene in which a teacher asks her about her feelings towards the victim reveals a stunned and shallow teenager with the emotional immaturity of a child. Ms. Skye’s dumbfounded silence as the camera closes in on her face is as expressive as any soliloquy such a character might have delivered. Finally, the late great Dennis Hopper also appears as Feck, a drug supplying loner with a sex doll fetish who might have naturally evolved into the Frank Boothe character from ‘Blue Velvet.’ While an outlaw himself, even he is speechless by John’s admission that the killing made him feel “so f-ing alive!”
Of course, this condition on lack of action in the face of outrage has been explored countless times in the media (such as the infamous story regarding the Kitty Genovese murder). The socio-psychological aspects of the surrounding characters are raised, but not preached. Since the movie opens with the senseless killing already accomplished, ‘River’s Edge’ avoids any clichéd attempt to justify the kids’ chilling indifference to all events. The movie shows us what might be termed as “the bystander effect” or “diffusion of responsibility” without being didactic. The script also confronts the self-righteous clichés and hypocritical responses which usually accompany such horrors, as noted in a classroom scene were a student dramatically proclaims that the murder represents “a fundamental moral breakdown of society!” (A similar scene appears in the 1989 black comedy ‘Heathers’ where the “suicide” of students is treated with disingenuous outrage amidst apathy.) Needless to say, this teacher, just like the audience, can't help wondering if that phrase has any meaning at all.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber Studio Classics presents "River's Edge" as a single disc Blu-ray in a standard Blu case. The boxcover art is a modified version of the original theatrical one-sheet (the critic's quotes have been replaced with cast names). Once loaded, the disc proceeds right to the main menu without advertisements or trailers. The menu page itself is a static image of the boxcover art, but without the credits, bordered by vertical black bars with no sound or music.
Visually, ‘River’s Edge’ isn’t exactly home theatre demo material. The picture is presented as a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoding in its original aspect ratio of 1:85:1, but it seems that the quality of the original transfer source is lacking. While I expected some technical compromise in a low-budget film from nearly twenty years ago, this transfer still fell below moderate expectations. The picture is grainy throughout, most notably during scenes which take place during the night. Fine detail is nearly absent, espeically in close-up shots of various characters. Black appear dull and crushed throughout, and busier visuals like water ripples and waves occasionally appear soft and smeary. While the print itself isn’t littered with dirt and scratches, the transfer looks like a standard DVD but without the overt ringing artifacts. I was unable to compare the Blu-ray to the DVD released in 2001, so I cannot comment on whether the Blu-ray offers a substantial improvement.
Like the video, the audio quality is likewise less than ideal despite the DTS-MA encoding. However, the two-channel presentation makes such deficiencies less noticeable. Dynamic range is limited, even when the occasional rock song and music score make their aural appearance. Stereo separation is indistinct, and bass response is absent for the most part. Since dialogue is emphasized over any other ambient sound, it’s safe to say that your TV speakers will be up to the task of reproducing this undemanding soundtrack.
The Director’s Commentary by Tim Hunter is excellent, and one of the most informative I’ve ever heard. His discussion is full of details regarding the characters, the setting, and the production itself. Mr. Hunter has obvious respect for Neal Jiminez’s screenplay, and equal respect for his cast as he provide amusing anecdotes about Crispin Glover’s audition and his “discovery” of a pre-‘Say Anything’ Ione Skye (billed as “Ione Skye Leitch” in the film). Still, he manages to avoid the sycophantic stock phrases usually repeated by fawning filmmakers of their movie stars, and maintains the integrity of his very underrated film.
A trailer (HD 1:59) also accompanies this film, and the picture quality isn't that much worse than the main feature.
There is much to admire about ‘River’s Edge’ even though the topic is completely unpleasant and the characters are less than likable. The Blu-ray fails to live up to the demanding standards of home theater enthusiasts, but discriminating fans might overlook the technical deficiencies to experience a movie where content is far more important than presentation. This movie is highly recommended.