The Nuclear Family Dies at the 'River's Edge'

by Brice Ezell

1 April 2015

This mid-'80s obscurity is a chilling depiction of the violence amongst those who find themselves on the fringes of society's moral landscape.
 
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River's Edge

Director: Tim Hunter
Cast: Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Roxana Zal, Daniel Roebuck, Joshua Miller, Dennis Hopper

US DVD: 13 Jan 2015

Very little unites the characters of River’s Edge, save for their shared anguish and pain. The film begins after a boy called John (Daniel Roebuck) has killed a young girl, ostensibly his friend. He sits next to her naked corpse alongside the edge of a river, staring off in the distance—or, rather, nothingnness. From afar, a young boy, Tim (Joshua John Miller) sees John next to the body. One might think John has been caught and the game is now up, but not long after Tim sees the scene of the crime, it becomes clear that there’s a reason why John was sitting by the body of his victim, seemingly without worry that someone might stumble upon what he had done.

Based on the horrific 1981 murder of 14-year-old Marcy Renee Conrad by the 16-year-old Anthony Jacques Broussard, River’s Edge documents what happens when John begins to brag about killing the young girl, Jamie. Although there’s a shockwave sent through his group of friends when he reveals what he’s done—at first his friends don’t believe him—no one bothers to tell an authority figure. No one cries out in outrage at what has happened. For the most part, the general reaction is best captured by the face of Matt (Keanu Reeves) when he sees Jamie’s body: quiet terror. However, de facto group leader Layne (Crispin Glover, chewing every bit of scenery he can) goes into full-on damage control, doing the best he can to cover up John’s actions.

The parallels between the Conrad murder and the fictional one in River’s Edge are twofold: 1. the killing went unreported for several days, and 2. the killer bragged about his actions to his friends, who kept it to themselves. These are startling facts, and they are brought to vivid life by the bleak moral universe of River’s Edge. As Matt and others in the group struggle with the weight of what John has done, Layne’s actions become more frenetic. Based on notions of loyalty that are never explained in the film, Layne continually drills into Matt that everyone has to “stick together”, lest their gang be torn apart by the murder.

The problem with those notions of loyalty is that, like most other relationships in River’s Edge, they are merely asserted. Aside from feeling isolated and angry—not to mention a penchant for heavy metal music—there’s little that brings any of these young people together. Outside of this group, Layne’s only friend is Feck (Dennis Hopper), a runaway murderer and shut-in, who occasionally provides him with drugs.

These are kids atomized from the social structures that surround them. Their home lives, particularly Matt and Tim’s, are broken. They find school rote and boring. Most of all, they don’t have any attachment to a system of law, to the point that a heinous crime gives them no initial spur to inform law enforcement. When Matt finally fesses up to the cops, their conversation quickly grows heated; he cares enough about what’s happened to lead the police in the right direction, but not enough to show that he has trust in or respect for them.

Although director Tim Hunter and writer Neal Jimenez create an effectively disturbing world with River’s Edge, the disenchantment they depict is not given much substantiation. It’s plain to see these are angsty, frustrated individuals, but little in the way of backstory lets the audience know why these teenagers arrived at so terrible a place. Moreover, it doesn’t help that many of these characters are genuinely unlikable, particularly Layne, whom Glover gives an accent that those who have seen the Saturday Night Live sketch “The Californians” will know all too well. His over-the-top performance represents well the hollow core at this supposed group of friends, but it’s nonetheless grating even as it makes that point.

The audience is afforded some glimmers of the social context from which these teens will arise. Matt and Tim’s family life, such as it is, represents a microcosm of the collapse of the suburbanite nuclear family at the latter end of the Reagan presidency. Their mother is overworked, and her new boyfriend hangs out at her house all day, doing nothing. Whenever she tries to control her kids, especially the brooding Tim, all she can do is scream threats that she’ll never deliver on. In a time when family-first conservatism was engaging in an intense culture war—the Parents Music Resource Center controversy happened but one year before River’s Edge was released—the alienation from the family unit experienced by Matt and Tim rings true. Insights like these are few and far between with the other characters, but as the movie’s (pseudo) moral core, Matt’s story is appropriately emphasized.

This devolution of the family is further drawn out in a classroom discussion following the public announcement of the murder. When a teacher, befuddled by the fact that no one reported the murder even though it was known for several days, brings the subject up in class, one student chimes in, “I just want to say it was horrible what those kids did. And the whole incident points up a fundamental moral breakdown in our society.” The teacher responds, “Thank you, Kevin, for your insightful self-righteous indignation.”

Here the audience is given some insight as to why families like Matt and Tim’s can crumble even in the seemingly safe environment of suburban America. Just as Layne’s platitudes about loyalty amongst friends are baseless, so too are the values of the Moral Majority. Once upon a time, ethical claims like those made by the “family values” groups in the ‘80s may have had some intellectual rigor and substance. However, when right or wrong actions are defined not in terms of their actual ethical value but rather by political posturing, there’s no reason why individuals should feel connected with each other, even if they’re bonded by family or close friendships. Had the student’s claim to the teacher simply been, “What those kids did was horrible,” he would be right. But instead, he chooses to frame it in terms of old orders being replaced by new ones, of “the breakdown of society”.

The dissociated teens of River’s Edge find themselves caught in the battle happening in the liminal space between the nuclear family and what came after it, dodging bullets in a culture war they were thrust into without a choice. As such, it’s no wonder that one of the few commonalities between the lot of them is heavy metal. As Adrien Begrand notes in “Blood and Thunder: Metal Is for the Children” (PopMatters, 19 February 2015) River’s Edge is a rare depiction of the cathartic effect heavy metal provides, particularly to young people. As he rightly identifies, the “unspoken refrain” of these kids is: “I just don’t know how to handle this situation, or the rest of my life for that matter.” The thrashy rhythms and harsh vocals of Slayer, Fates Warning, and Agent Orange provide an avenue for channeling their anger. Headbanging becomes a sign of recognition and mutual hardships amongst friends, if one could call them that.

Unfortunately, while much of these unspoken conflicts come through the film—the collapse of the family unit, the inability to see beyond terrible circumstances—there’s ultimately too much that’s left unsaid. The forces that would lead a teenage boy to kill a girl he regularly hung out with, to say nothing of those forces that would keep shut the mouths of his friends who know that he’s done wrong, are no doubt too many to capture in a 99 minute film. While River’s Edge gets at some of them, there are too many times in its sordid tale where the silence needs to be broken. The sound of metal riffs coming from a car stereo can only say so much.

The only extra included in Kino Lorber’s excellent Blu-ray transfer of the film is a trailer.

River's Edge

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